HC Deb 24 May 1886 vol 305 cc1836-42
MR. RICHARD (Merthyr Tydvil)

I beg to ask the Prime Minister the following Question, of which I have given him private Notice:—Whether his attention has been called to a statement made by the noble Lord the Member for Rossendale (the Marquess of Hartington) on Saturday, and reported in the public press, as to the alleged pressure which is being placed on Members by the Party associations to vote for the second reading of the Government of Ireland Bill, and for which purpose the debate was to be indefinitely prolonged; and also to the letter signed by the hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir Robert Fowler), and published in this morning's Standard, as to the tactics which are being pursued by the Government to prolong the debate; if so, is he prepared to urge upon the supporters of the Bill who are desirous of being heard to waive their right of speaking?

MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland)

I wish to ask the Prime Minister the following Question, of which I have given him private Notice. Has the right hon. Gentleman received it?


I have not received it.


Then I beg to ask the right hon. Gentleman the following Question, of which I have given him private Notice:—Whether, with the view of enabling the House to come to an early decision on the second reading of the Government of Ireland Bill by having the case fully and fairly before it, the Prime Minister will use his influence in the proper quarters to secure for the right hon. Member for West Birmingham (Mr. J. Chamberlain) the earliest opportunity of laying before the House his alternative proposals, and thus enable the right hon. Gentleman to carry out his purpose of assisting the Government and the House in arriving at a speedy conclusion of the debate?


I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham will have ample means, when the proper time in his judgment arrives, of taking part in the debate and of securing that his fair claim to be heard shall meet with due attention. With regard to the Question put by my hon. Friend behind me (Mr. Richard), I think I had better, in answer to it, make the reply which I undertook on Friday last to make to the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach). The right hon. Gentleman asked me, in a manner which I thought perfectly usual and perfectly regular, as to the probable duration of this debate. I undertook, especially after hearing my noble Friend the Member for Rossendale (the Marquess of Hartington), to make inquiries on the subject, and to put myself in a condition, so far as possible, to form some judgment on the matter. In consequence of that, I requested my hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Arnold Morley) to make inquiries in different parts of the House. I was waiting for the results of those inquiries when I saw published in the newspapers yesterday a statement attributed to my noble Friend the Member for Rossendale, whether accurately or not I do not know. He is made to assert that pressure, of which I do not myself know anything, was being exercised by Party Associations upon Members, and with the view of facilitating the exercise of this pressure it had been determined—it was not said by the Government; I do not take it to apply to the Government, but to some person or persons unknown, as they sometimes say at a Coroner's inquest—that the debate should be indefinitely prolonged. Again, Sir, this morning I read the remarkable letter of the hon. Member for the City of London (Sir Robert Fowler), which concludes in this way— To those who recollect the practice of the House"— I do not know by what authority he says this, as he is by no means the oldest Member— the fact that Lord Kilcoursie was directed to speak emphatically shows the determination of Mr. Gladstone to postpone the fate of his Bills till the latest moment. I confess I read that letter with some surprise, as I had always considered the hon. Baronet, who is as wide as the poles asunder from me in political opinion, to be eminently a courteous and good-natured man. It is not, however, the language of a courteous or good-natured man to say that anyone had been directed to speak in this House. I read the statement attributed, I hope erroneously, to my noble Friend (the Marquess of Hartington) with much regret, for I felt it was impossible for me to do any good by bringing any influence to bear on those who were placed under the stigma of artificially prolonging this debate. As this personal attack has been made upon my noble Friend (Viscount Kilcoursie), I must ask the leave of the House to state what actually happened. Before the debate began I encouraged my noble Friend, who spoke to me, to address the House on the question. Was there anything in that? The Liberal Party have been turned entirely out of the Irish representation, and Irish Liberals are very rare among us, and rather precious, and considering that my noble Friend belongs to a family which for nearly three centuries has been connected with Ireland, I did not expect that his intervention in this debate would have been made the subject of invidious remark. Well, Sir, I very much regret that letter and what else has happened, because I felt that it disabled me from being of use in the matter to which the right hon. Gentleman had referred. I must thank my right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham for fulfilling his part of the engagement in assisting me, because he wrote to me on Saturday morning very kindly to say he thought that some Members of Parliament with whom he had been in communication were of the same mind as those referred to by my noble Friend the Member for Rossendale. I have the satisfaction of saying, on the part of the Political Secretary, that I find from communications that I did not misinform the House on the former occasion. Perhaps some change of view may have taken place in the interval; but what my hon. Friend reported to me was perfectly accurate as to the insufficient means that Gentlemen sympathizing with my right hon. Friend the Member for West Birmingham and the noble Lord the Member for Rossendale had up to that time enjoyed for taking part in the debate. What I find really is this—I can do nothing but state my own opinion. In the first place, I very earnestly hope that the Orders which we have been obliged to put down to-day in priority to the Irish Government Bill may be as rapidly disposed of as the exigencies of Business will permit, because I can assure Gentlemen, for those who have great responsibility in this matter, that the indefinite prolongation of debates of this kind is a great addition to the burden of public affairs, with all the uncertainties that attend them. Nothing I should regret so much as the interposition of any artificial obstacle to the closing of the debate. I hope that in any case we shall get through the Committee on the Arms Bill to-night. I also venture to hope, notwithstanding the imputations thrown out by the hon. Alderman, if I may give any advice to Gentlemen in this House, that they will claim their own just liberty in proportion to what the importance of the sub- ject demands, and that they will pay no heed to any unjust imputations of a scheme for indefinitely prolonging the debate in order to permit pressure to be put on Members. Above all, if I may make a recommendation, it is that they should carefully avoid retaliation. One of the greatest objections I have to imputations of this kind is that they are so exceedingly easy to retaliate, and I hope that all those who have any predisposition at all to listen to what I or the Government may say will carefully avoid any of that retaliation, though perhaps it may not be difficult to make. I only refer to the letter of the hon. Alderman and Baronet on this ground, that at the time when he makes this charge, which he does not throw out as a matter of suspicion or probability, but as a thing demonstrated beyond doubt, I thought it was well to look to the statistics of the debate. On examining those statistics I found that the speakers for the Bill at the moment when this charge was made were 23, and against the Bill 24. I stated at the beginning of this debate that we must see what had taken place on former occasions, not only on account of the vast importance of the subject, but the large volume of the propositions contained in the Bill. I thought that it might be difficult perhaps to say that this debate could not be reasonably prolonged, at any rate within the limits for which there were precedents on former occasions. I had a recollection of a precedent on a former occasion, although I frankly own I hope it may not be necessary to follow it in full, but it is a precedent that will be greatly respected on the opposite side of the House, because it was made by a body of Gentlemen for whom they must cherish the tenderest respect, inasmuch as they were the Gentlemen from whom the present Conservative Party springs. It was made by the Protectionist Party in opposing Sir Robert Peel in 1846. The Motion for the repeal of the Corn Laws was made by Sir Robert Peel on February 9, and the vote of the House was taken on February 26, the debate having extended in the meantime over 12 nights. I hope it will not be necessary to extend the debate on the Government of Ireland Bill so much; but I am sorry to say I am afraid, under existing circumstances, I cannot do more than express my own feeling and the very earnest hope that no Gentleman will give any real colour to the charge which the hon. Alderman and Baronet has made.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in regard to the precedent he has quoted, his attention has been called to what I believe was the fact—that that debate was prolonged, not, as in the present case it would seem to be, by those who support the Bill, but by those who were in opposition to the measure? I would further call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that in the very interesting statement he has made, he has given no answer whatever to the question which he stated he was going to answer to-night—namely, whether he can give us any idea of the date of the probable termination of this debate.


My attention was called to the fact that the prolongation of the debate on the repeal of the Corn Laws was mainly due to the Opposition. I cannot, however, draw any distinction between the right of the supporters of a Bill and the right of its opponents to take part in the discussion. I did not answer literally the Question of the right hon. Gentleman, as I had hoped to be in a condition to answer. I proposed to do it in an indirect manner by stating that what had really occurred incapacitated me from going so far as I should otherwise have done in the way of ascertaining what number of Members might be disposed to waive their right of addressing the House. I do not feel myself capable, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, to agree to anything of that sort after what has occurred. I cannot attempt to state any day on which the debate will be concluded.

THE MARQUESS OF HARTINGTON (Lancashire, Rossendale)

I hope the House will allow me to say one or two words in the nature of a personal explanation. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Richard) has not given me any Notice that he was going to put a Question to the Prime Minister turning on something which I am supposed to have stated at a meeting on Saturday, which was not a public meeting, and at which reporters were not present, and of which I have not seen any report which professes to be full or authentic. I think it would have been more in accordance with the usual custom of the House if the hon. Member had told me that he intended to found a Question upon some report which had appeared of those proceedings. I am quite sure it would have been a more convenient course, because I should have been in a position either to admit the accuracy of the report from which the hon. Member has quoted, or to state in what respect I did not think it was accurate. The hon. Member in his Question only made an indirect reference to what I am supposed to have said. All I can say is that I am not prepared, without seeing the report on which the hon. Member founded his Question, to admit the accuracy of the quotation to which he apparently refers. No doubt, I may have referred to the information given to me that pressure was being brought to bear by some local Associations upon Members in order to induce them to vote for the second reading of the Bill, and I may also have referred to what appeared to me to be the probability of an indefinite prolongation of the discussion. But I do not admit—and until I see the actual report of my speech upon which the statement is founded I cannot admit—that I placed the two things together in a manner which the Prime Minister would have reason to complain of.