HC Deb 11 March 1887 vol 312 cc27-37
SIR WILLIAM PLOWDEN (Wolverhampton, W.)

Sir, I rise with great reluctance to ask the indulgence of the House while I refer to a matter personal to myself. I am compelled to take this step in consequence of a Question which was put and answered in the House during my unavoidable absence on Tuesday last. The Question referred to certain extracts which appeared in The Times on Monday morning from the evidence taken by the Contracts Committee of the Admiralty. Now, Sir, when I found on Monday morning that the Question was on the Notice Paper, I wrote at once to the hon. Member for East Bradford (Mr. Byron Reed), who had placed it on the Paper, and also to the hon. Member for the Ormskirk Division of Lancashire (Mr. Forwood), the Secretary to the Admiralty, who was likely to respond to it. In those letters I pointed out that I should unavoidably be absent from my place on Tuesday, and I said that it would be convenient to myself if the Question could be postponed until my return. I must, at the outset, acknowledge the courtesy and kindness with which I was treated by the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Bradford; and I have his permission to read the letter he sent to me in reply to my request. I cannot say that I am able to extend the same gratitude to the hon. Member for the Ormskirk Division of Lancashire. The hon. Member for East Bradford sent a note to me at a quarter past 4 o'clock on Tuesday, when I was on my way to Wolverhampton, and in that note he said— On my arrival here at the House I at once saw the hon. Member for the Ormskirk Division, and I have shown him your note. He, however, objects to the Question being postponed, as the matter it refers to is one of administrative importance, and, therefore, will not brook delay; and, besides, he says that he has heard from you on the subject this morning, and that you agree that the Question should be put. Now, it is a curious fact that I received from the hon. Member for Ormskirk, on Tuesday morning, a telegram, in which he stated— I propose, in answer to the Question on the Paper for to-night, to read the first two letters of our correspondence. Having at that time sent a letter to the hon. Gentleman, couched in the same terms as that to the hon. Member for East Bradford, I telegraphed in reply to the telegram of the Secretary to the Admiralty— Good; but see my letter posted this morning: shall be away at Wolverhampton this afternoon. No doubt, it was natural that the Secretary to the Admiralty should be anxious, for Departmental reasons, that the matter should be disposed of at once; and I can understand, from circumstances which have since transpired, that the hon. Gentleman was not at all unwilling that his answer should be given in my absence. ["Oh!"] I think I shall make this clear to hon. Gentlemen opposite; but, however that may be, whether I am right or wrong in that conjecture, I do not understand why the hon. Member for Ormskirk, unwittingly—for I am sure he would not have done it purposely—should have misled the hon. Member for East Bradford, and induced him to bring on the Question, because, had he shown the whole of my telegram to the hon. Member for East Bradford, I am perfectly convinced that the hon. Member would have been the last man in the world to insist on bringing forward the Question in my absence, and would have refused altogether to be the medium of eliciting an answer from the Secretary to the Admiralty. This may be considered comparatively unimportant; but still it is one which I think I ought to bring under the notice of the House. And now I will turn to what was stated by the hon. Member for Ormskirk in the answer to the Question which he gave in my absence; and I must say that I was extremely surprised to find what I can only describe as a very nasty insinuation—[''Oh!"]—yes, a very nasty insinuation indeed—contained in it towards the close of the answer. I say again that I have no desire to impute to the hon. Member for Ormskirk any intention to make a nasty insinuation; but, as it stands, I will ask the House whether what he said in answer to a Question put to him in my absence does not contain a very nasty insinuation. The hon. Gentleman said, at the close of his reply— I am sorry that the hon. Member"—that is myself—"does not state what he did with the notes he says he took of the Report, seeing that some of the comments in The Times had reference to some of the extracts from the Report. Then the hon. Gentleman goes on to say, in singular contrast to the terms of my letter— As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton is not in his place, it is right to say that I communicated with him and received his consent to the production of the correspondence. Now, I accept the entire responsibility for the publication of the extracts from the evidence. I am bound to do so. I regret extremely—and I place myself unreservedly in the hands of the House in the matter—that through misapprehension—how it has arisen I cannot at present understand—but, under a complete misapprehension, I took away, in the fullest possible belief that it was public property given to me to do what I liked with, what is said to be a confidential document. Now, there were two documents; one the Report of the Committee on Admiralty Contracts, and the other a Report of the evidence adduced before the Committee. I wish the House to understand clearly what my position was. I had no knowledge whatever of the evidence having been printed, but I had considerable knowledge in reference to the Report. The hon. Gentleman will he aware that on the 18th of February a summary appeared in The Daily Telegraph which purported to be a resume of the Report of the Committee on Contracts, and rumours were circulated about for some time that there were considerable differences of opinion in regard to the Report, and that the delay in producing it before the House was occasioned by those differences of opinion. I was very anxious to see the Report, if it was to be presented to the House, and to compare it with the résumé in The Daily Telegraph, which I had in my possession. With that object I called at the Admiralty and asked the hon. Member for Ormskirk to allow me to see the Report. There was some difficulty as to my seeing it, but eventually the hon. Gentleman consented to my seeing it as a confidential document. Immediately after he had consented to my seeing the Re-port I asked if I could see the corrected proof, and I was informed that the proof had been returned to the printers, and that I could not see it. I mention this in reference to my letter of the 4th of March. It occurred to me that although the proof might have gone back to the printers there might possibly be a rough copy which I might be allowed to see. I, therefore, went to the Admiralty on Saturday last and asked to see the document, and, with great kindness, the hon. Member for Ormskirk, through his private secretary, allowed me to see a copy of the Report. The secretary told me that the Report was a confidential communication, and that I should not be allowed to take away a copy of it; but he said I might read it and take notes from it. He then pointed to a second set of papers, and said, "There is the Report of the evidence; you can have that." I said, "I should be glad to have it; may I take it away with me?" He said, "Yes; we do not care for it." I took it away with the intention of reading it afterwards. I road the Report; and, after I had done so, I took away the other collection of papers, with the complete understanding, on my part, that the second bundle of papers was absolutely open to the public. I was fully aware that the Report itself was strictly confidential. I read the evidence in the course of the afternoon, and then handed it over to a friend, with whom I had some conversation about it. I said, "It is public property; you may take it away with you." He did so; and on the Monday morning certain extracts from the evidence appeared in The Times. I can only say that I am extremely sorry that, through a misapprehension—but through no breach of confidence, for I wish altogether to dissever myself from any imputation of that kind—these extracts should have appeared in The Times. And now let me turn to the matter in which I say a nasty insinuation is contained in the reply of the Secretary to the Admiralty on Tuesday to the Question put to him by the hon. Member for East Bradford. In the remarks of the hon. Member for Ormskirk, which I quoted just now, he said— I am sorry the hon. Member does not state what he did with the notes which he states he took of the Report, seeing that some of the statements of The Times had reference to the extracts from the Report. Now, the hon. Gentleman is not altogether correct. If he had taken the trouble to look at the leading article in The Times, he would have found that there was no reference to any extracts from that Report. There is not a single comment of the nature to which he refers. I have here The Times in question, and I challenge the hon. Gentleman to point to one single extract from the Report or one single comment on such an extract. I hope, then, that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman in regard to his curiosity, which, I admit, was perfectly natural. I took no notes whatever from the Report, and very naturally, because I had been told that it was a confidential document. It would have been perfectly useless for me to have taken notes from it, when it was given to me as a confidential Report, and I knew that in the course of a few days the public would have it in the usual way. The hon. Gentleman is altogether inaccurate in his statement—unintentionally, of course—when he says I have stated that I took notes of the Report. I never made any statement of the kind. I never said that I took notes from the Report. I suppose the hon. Member has arrived at the conclusion that I did take notes from the Report, because I say in my letter, of the 7th of March, that— On visiting the Admiralty on Saturday, I was permitted to read and to take notes of the Report on Contract. He gathers from that that I did take notes. It is true that I had permission to take notes; but, as a matter of fact, I took none whatever. There is another matter to which I feel bound to refer; but I do so with great reluctance, not only on my own account, but on account of the awkward position in which it may possibly place the hon. Gentleman himself. The House will have observed that, in the telegram the hon. Member for Ormskirk sent to me on Tuesday morning, he said— I am going to read the two first letters of our correspondence. As a matter of fact, the hon. Gentleman read four. I attach no importance to that. The only remark I will make is, that it is not what the hon. Member said he was going to do; because, instead of reading two letters, he read four. What I do complain of is that, in reading the fourth letter, the name of another gentleman was unwarrantably dragged into the matter, without any permission from me, without the permission from the other gentleman named, and absolutely without the hon. Gentleman having received the letter from me. I am quite aware, from what the hon. Gentleman himself has told me, that he has been labouring under a misapprehension. He has, no doubt, thought that he received that fourth letter from me. I am sorry to trouble the House at such great length; but it is a matter of considerable importance to me; and, therefore, I will ask the House to follow me while I read the letter in question. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Ormskirk read my letter to him, of the 7th of March, and he then went on to say— The hon. Member"—referring to myself—"was good enough to enclose for my information the following letter he received on Friday, March 4, from Mr. H. C. Burdett—the friend to whom, I presume, he refers in his letter of the 7th—the day he wrote appointing Saturday, the 5th, on which to peruse the report:— 'Dear Sir William,—Will you come over here as I want to explain how it will be easiest for you to get out the facts and to understand the report to-morrow. Believe me faithfully yours, H. C. BURDETT.' Mr. Burdett had asked me to dine with him at the St. Stephen's Club, and the letter began with these words— Will you dine with me at 8 p.m.? The bearer awaits an answer. Will you come over hero, &c.? Now this letter of Mr. Burdett has been most unwarrantably brought forward; but so far as Mr. Burdett is concerned, personally he is a gentleman who can very well take care of himself. He is a well known writer on statistics, and takes a great interest in the Spending Departments of the Government. I think I am perfectly correct in saying that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Treasury Bench and the Front Opposition Bench have on more than one occasion received from Mr. Burdett very valuable information. But whatever his position is, I altogether object to his letter to me being made use of without his consent and mine. I was greatly astonished when I returned to London on the Wednesday morning to find what had occurred. I know perfectly well that I had not sent this letter to the hon. Member for Ormskirk. I wrote to the hon. Member, having previously told him that he must have been aware that the letter of Mr. Burdett was not intended for him, and I asked his private secretary to inquire whether any letter of mine had been left in the Admiralty Office when I last visited it. To that letter I received a reply from the private secretary to the hon. Member, Mr. Voules— In reply to your letter to-night I beg to give you the following explanation. Mr. For-wood on Monday gave me in the House of Commons a packet of correspondence which he had had with you with reference to the Report of the Committee on Admiralty Contracts. Among them I noticed one addressed to you, and signed, 'H. C. Burdett.' On the receipt of your letter as to whether any letter had been found in my room after your visit ceased, I am now informed by one of the messengers that on Monday evening he found a letter addressed to you on the floor of the room, which he placed on my desk, but without mentioning the matter to me. I can only add that I never saw this letter before Tuesday morning. Now, I wish to relieve from any imputation whatever Mr. Voules, who gives me this information. It is quite clear that he could not have known anything about this letter, but I think the hon. Member for Ormskirk was bound to know that he had not received this letter from me on the Monday, because he replied to my letter of that date, and made no mention of the fact. All I can say is that if the hon. Gentleman conducts the business of the Admiralty in the same careless manner as that in which he conducts his own correspondence, the business of the Admiralty must be in a rather bad condition. Perhaps upon this subject I may be allowed to refer to a letter which the Secretary to the Admiralty has been good enough to send me. He says— In reply to your note of the 9th, about the letter of Mr. Burdett, I first found it in the correspondence on Tuesday morning. May I remind the House that the letter of mine in which the hon. Member says this enclosure appears, was delivered on Monday evening, and was answered by him on the Monday evening. He goes on to say— I rather hastily thought that I had omitted to examine the envelope, as both seemed to "hang together. A rather curious expression "hang together." Well, Sir, in regard to this matter, I should like to make one or two very short remarks. ["Oh!"] I am sorry to occupy so much of the time of the House, but I think the House will see that it is absolutely necessary that I should give an answer to the imputations which have been made against me. I will only point to the fact that in the letters which passed between myself and the Parliamentary Secretary of the Admiralty, there has never been one single reference to any enclosure whatever, nor has the hon. Gentleman in any reply to me made any reference to any enclosure having been received; when the hon. Member says that he found the letter of Mr. Burdett on his table on Tuesday morning, and considered that it had been enclosed to him by me, he must have jumped to a somewhat extraordinary conclusion. If I had boon acting the part of a strictly honest man and wanted to point out to the Secretary to the Admiralty the name of the friend to whom I had given the collection of papers I had received, I should have mentioned the facts explicitly. But why should I go and put into my letter an enclosure which conveys no information at all, and which does not even give my name. Certainly it is addressed to "Sir William," but I imagine that there are a good many "Sir Williams" in Great Britain, and it is impossible for the hon. Member to say that this particular communication was addressed to me. All I say is that if the hon. Member treats letters in this way ordinarily, he has an extraordinary way of dealing with them. I wish again to repeat my complete denial that any suspicion can rightly attach to me that in taking this collection of papers containing the evidence, I had the least idea that I was taking away a confidential Report. I am certain that it was given to me with a clear intimation that it was a public document; and, having arrived at the conclusion, I would ask hon. Members as reasonable men to argue the matter out, and they will at once see that I came to that conclusion because I was told that the Report itself was a confidential document, and that I could not take it away; whereas the second collection of papers which I had not asked for, but which were offered to me, were represented to me to be not confidential, and I was told that I might take them away. I was further told—and it was a matter which had a considerable impression upon me—that the Admiralty "do not care about it."


I hope the hon. Gentleman will remember the old proverb, that one tale is good until the other is told. At the outset, I wish to say that I accept the assurance of the hon. Member that in the mode in which he has dealt with the Papers placed before him at the Admiralty Office, he acted inadvertently and without understanding the conditions under which they were entrusted to him. But the hon. Member has made some remarks, personal to myself, in regard to which it is necessary that I should detain the House for a minute or two while I give a reply. At the outset I wish to remind hon. Members that I believe the House resents—and justly resents—the publication of confidential documents, and that the publication of confidential documents is considered to be a reflection upon the Department that has charge of them. Well, Sir, when on Monday morning I saw documents published in The Times which had been in the charge of a Department of the Admiralty with which I am connected, and knowing that I had permitted them to be seen by an hon. Member in whom I had reposed the confidence which one Member of this House has in the discretion of another—a confidence which has happily characterised the relations between Member and Member of this House—entertaining that opinion, and knowing that I had consented to show an hon. Member a document which was confidential in its character, I felt that if there was any reflection in regard to the publication of this document I was unwittingly the cause of it. I wrote at once to the hon. Member to whom I had lent the document and asked him if he could explain how the matter had become public. I received a reply to that letter on Monday evening, and, as the hon. Member has stated, I gave that reply, together with other documents, to my private secretary in an envelope. On Tuesday morning I saw that the hon. Member for East Bradford had given Notice of a Question which he proposed to put in the House, and I telegraphed to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, saying that in answering the Question I should have to refer to the two letters I had received from him. I received in reply this telegram—"Good; but see my letter of today." The letter of the hon. Member was couched in the same terms as his letter to the hon. Member for East Bradford. It stated that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton would be unable to be in his place in the House; but as I proposed only to read the communications I had received from the hon. Member himself and to explain the matter, as the credit of the Department was at stake, and seeing that unless an answer was made at once none could be given until 72 hours afterwards, I felt perfectly justified in reading the letters I had received from the hon. Member. One word more. The hon. Gentleman has referred to what I had supposed to be an enclosure in his letter—namely, a communication from Mr. Burdett. I did not see the letter from Mr. Burdett in opening the letter of the hon. Gentleman on Monday night; but it was given to me on the Tuesday morning with the papers I had given to my secretary on the previous evening. Finding that the letter of Mr. Burdett tallied with that part of the communication of the hon. Gentleman in which he stated that he had given a copy of the evidence to a friend, I came to the conclusion that he had enclosed the letter of Mr. Burdett in confirmation of his statement that he had entrusted the copy of the evidence to a friend and had not sent it to The Times. It is a singular coincidence that that letter should have come into my hands. It does, however, appear that the letter had been dropped in the room of my private secretary, and being found by a messenger, was placed on the top of the letters given by me to my private secretary. In that way the whole matter is explained. I felt justified, in the interest of a Public Department, whoso conduct, as I have already stated, was reflected upon by the publication of this confidential document, in taking the earliest opportunity to set the matter right with the public as to how it had occurred, and it was impossible to do so without reading the letters of the hon. Member, I regret that there should have been any misapprehension in the matter, and I regret that the hon. Gentleman should have felt aggrieved in regard to it; but I submit myself to the judgment of the House, and I maintain that what I did was right and proper in the circumstances of the case.