HC Deb 05 March 1889 vol 333 cc978-90

I beg to move, "That Mr. Speaker issue a Writ for Lambeth (Kennington Division), in the room of Mr. Robert Gent-Davis, on his acceptance of the Chiltern Hundreds."


I do not propose to resist the Motion. I do not call in question the right of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to grant the Chiltern Hundreds to Mr. Gent-Davis, nor do I intend to say a word against Mr. Gent-Davis, now no longer a Member of this House. But I desire to call attention to the singular circumstances under which this Motion is made. So long ago as November last a communication was made to the Speaker by Mr. Justice North to the effect that Mr. Gent-Davis had been committed to prison for contempt of Court in appropriating to his own use and neglecting to pay into Court, in obedience to the order of the Court, a large sum of money received by him in a fiduciary manner. There can be no doubt, in the face of the communication of the Judge, that Mr. Gent-Davis was convicted of having committed a breach of trust in a money transaction. There is equally no doubt that the established practice of this House in cases of this kind is to vindicate its honour by the expulsion of the Member guilty of such a transaction. I will only refer to one authority. A Predecessor of yours, Sir, in the Chair, Lord Colchester, in the case of Benjamin Walsh, explained that a breach of trust in a money transaction justified expulsion from the House, and added that the principle extended not only to public but to private property, and that it was commonly the practice of Parliament first to vindicate its own honour, and then to consign the individual offender to legal prosecution. Now, after the communication from Mr. Justice North had been received by the Speaker, the First Lord of the Treasury, the guardian of the honour of this House, was asked what steps he proposed to take, and the right hon. Gentleman said— I do not think it will be my duty to ask the House to take any action in the matter. I am not in possession of information which would justify me in taking that course. I should take upon myself a serious responsibility if I were to proceed, even upon the report of the learned Judge, to ask the House to pronounce judgment upon the financial transactions of the hon. Member. I thought that answer so astounding, that I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he had been advised in the matter, and I received no reply. I can only say that whatever advice the right hon. Gentleman might have received upon the subject was bad advice. Apparently to prevent any misconception as to the nature of the offence of which Mr. Gent-Davis was guilty, Mr. Justice North again, in January, in open Court, put on record the nature of this financial transaction. He said that if proceedings in a Criminal Court had been taken against Mr. Gent-Davis, and if he had been convicted, the period of his imprisonment would have been longer than the imprisonment which he had endured. After all that, the First Lord of the Treasury has taken no steps. Even now he has not taken any, but permitted Mr. Gent-Davis to purge the House, to vindicate the honour of the House, by applying for the Chiltern Hundreds. There is only one other point which I wish to bring to the notice of the House. Her Majesty's Government have sinned with their eyes open and with full knowledge. Last year one of the projects of legislation of the Government was known as the "Black Sheep Bill," the main object of which, as stated by the Prime Minister, was to confer upon the House of Lords the same power of dealing with unworthy Members which, he said, the House of Commons already possessed; and one of the main clauses of the Bill was that the report of a Judge that one of the Members of the House of Lords had been guilty of unworthy conduct should be sufficient to justify the House in taking action against that Member. I propose to leave the matter here. As I have said, I did not rise to oppose the Motion. I simply with to put on record my own emphatic protest against the action, or rather the inaction, of the Government in this matter. I do not know whether the First Lord of the Treasury will think it necessary to give any explanation; but, in my opinion, no explanation will relieve the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues from the charge which I now make, that throughout the whole of this painful affair they have been indifferent to the honour of the House, and that by such indifference they have violated one of the best and worthiest traditions of the House of Commons.

* THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH,) Strand, Westminster

The hon. and learned Gentleman, without giving me any notice, has thought it right to charge me with being indifferent to the honour of the House. I emphatically deny that charge, and I shall be content to leave myself to the judgment of the House when I have made my explanation. I wish to recall the attention of the House to the circumstances of the case. The hon. and learned Member for Longford (Mr. T. M. Healy)gave notice that he would move the expulsion of the hon. Member for Kennington. That Gentleman was not in his place and could not be in his place in the House, and the hon. and learned Member for Longford withdrew that notice, in order that he might bring the question forward at a time when the hon. Gentleman could be in his place in the House and give an answer to the charge which the hon. and learned Member said he would make against him. I am charged with indifference to the honour of this House. It is one of the gravest charges which could be made against a man holding the position which I have the honour to fill. I stated, when the matter was previously before the House, that at least one of the duties of the Leader of the House is to be exceedingly careful how he proceeds to deal with a question affecting the personal honour of Members of this House. I have always stated that that is as responsible a duty as any other duty imposed upon me. Complaint has been made that when a charge of apparent irregularity and breach of trust was brought against Mr. Gent-Davis I did not instantly take steps for his expulsion. We indicated that if it were the desire of any hon. Member to bring the conduct of the late Member for Kennington under the notice of the House, the Government would not issue the Chiltern Hundreds to him, so that he might still remain within the jurisdiction of the House. I should have been the first to agree to any inquiry into the conduct of Mr. Gent-Davis. But, as reference has been made to my conduct and the duties imposed upon me, I must remind the hon. and learned Member that there are cases within the knowledge of this House of breaches of trust of the most serious character, which have been committed, and which, as far as this House is concerned, have been condoned, not by the action of Her Majesty's Government, not at the request of Her Majesty's Government, by the issue of the Chiltern Hundreds. But I do not wish to enter upon an explanation of those cases. The honour and character of individual Members of this House is the cherished possession of the House itself; and I say again that I should have been unworthy of the position I occupy if I had made use of the power which is placed in my hands to put an hon. Member in a position of extreme personal difficulty, unless charges were brought before this House which could be investigated, and which could properly form a subject of investigation. I am content with the explanation I have given. I believe that at the time I answered the Question I answered it to the satisfaction of the House itself; and I am not conscious that I have departed from the terms of it.


Like my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. E. Robertson), I certainly do not rise for the purpose of opposing in any way the issue of this Writ, or for the purpose of condemning the Government for issuing under these circumstances the Chiltern Hundreds. I admit that at first the grant in a case of this kind raised considerable doubts in my mind. But on examining the matter, and on the authority of the book to which we always refer in these matters, I found that in recent years all words have been omitted from the grant of the Chiltern Hundreds which formerly attached to those offices. In old days there was a record that the Chiltern Hundreds had been granted in consequence of the honourable services of Members.


And shining virtues.


The honourable services and shining virtues of the Member who took the post. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Lothian, who probably had some experience himself of the difficulties in these cases, ordered those words to be removed from the grant of the Chiltern Hundreds. Therefore there is no objection to be raised on that score. It is a very inconvenient method—probably belonging to those numerous anomalies which we cherish in the English Constitution—that there should be no other form for a Member resigning his seat in Parliament; and I think it would be well worthy the consideration of the House to inquire whether a simpler method of resignation should not be established by the House. I have no word of criticism or condemnation to make on the grant of the Chiltern Hundreds by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. E. Robertson) has raised a different question, and that is whether the Government ought not earlier, of their own accord, to have taken this matter in hand. In this regard I do not desire to press the thing too hardly against the Government or the Leader of the House; but I was glad to take notice of his admission of the fact that the honour of Members of this House is the first duty of the First Lord of the Treasury. Later on, perhaps, we may have cause to ask him to discharge that primary duty. But the right hon. Gentleman has said—and the plea was certainly good and valid—that in the first in- stance he objected to acting because the hon. Member whose conduct was in question was not able to be present. But when the Member was able to answer for himself—when he was at large—I confess that I should have thought that the persons to take the first action in this matter, by compelling the retirement of the Member in one form or another, would have been Her Majesty's Government, and the First Lord of the Treasury as principally responsible to the House. We know very well that, in the case of persons who ought not to be allowed to fulfil offices of public trust, sometimes their retirement is obtained by the process of enforced resignation, or by public dismissal; and in one form or another I should have thought that it was the duty of the Leader of the House to see that one of these courses was taken. The right hon. Gentleman has referred to cases where breaches of trust have been condoned by the grant of the Chiltern Hundreds. But he must allow me to draw a broad and clear distinction between cases where there has been an open and public Judgment, and cases where the facts are only known by general rumour. The cases are very different, especially with regard to the action of Her Majesty's Government. It is very difficult and almost impossible for a responsible Minister to act on a rumour, however credible it may be; but it is a totally different thing when there is a legal Judgment, as was the case in the matter before the House; because the Judgments of the Court of Chancery are just as much legal Judgments as the Judgments in the Common Law or Criminal Courts. Without desiring to press the matter too hardly, I think it ought to be recognized that, where there is a legal pronouncement in Court on the misconduct of a Member of the House of Commons, the persons who ought to take the earliest and first initiative in the matter are Her Majesty's Government. It ought not to be left to anyone else. I only make these remarks because the right hon. Gentleman said that anyone else might have taken action. That is quite true; but it is primarily the duty of the Leader of this House to take notice of these Judgments in the Courts of Law. That is all I desire to say in the matter, and I hope that I have not said it in any manner offensive to Gentlemen on the opposite bench, because I know the delicacy and difficulty of performing a duty of this character, and I hope that, without further comment, the Writ will be allowed to be issued.

MR. CHAPLIN (Lincolnshire, Sleaford)

I rise to point out that between the manner of the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down and the manner of the hon. and learned Member who opened this discussion there is a very marked and agreeable contrast. It may be a question of judgment as to whether or not action ought to have been taken in the matter before; but the hon. Member for Dundee has gone further. He has said that the First Lord of the Treasury has violated the best traditions of the House; and that in his position as Leader of the House he has shown himself in a marked degree insensible of the dignity of the House. I venture to repudiate every word of that charge. I believe that the vast majority of Gentlemen on the other side of the House do not approve of such allegations against the right hon. Gentleman. When the hon. Member for Dundee brings a charge of this kind against the Leader of the House of Commons he places himself in a remarkably inconsistent position when he follows it up by saying that he intends to take no further action. If it is true that the Leader of the House has shown himself absolutely insensible of the honour of this Assembly, it is perfectly clear that he has no right to occupy such an exalted position. I do not say this as a Member of the Conservative Party, but as a Member of the House of Commons. I say that such charges against the Leader of the House ought not to be made unless further action is intended. The hon. Member for Dundee ought to withdraw these charges, or ought not to be allowed to let them rest as they at present stand.


I should like to make a personal explanation. My statement was really in the nature of a syllogism. I stated that it is not denied that the First Lord and his colleagues are the guardians of the honour of the House, and that it is not denied that it is the practice of the House to vindicate its honour by taking immediate notice of charges such as those which have been made against Mr. Gent-Davis. I inferred that in not taking immediate action the First Lord of the Treasury and his colleagues have been indifferent to their duty to the House.


The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Sir W. Harcourt) said that his mind had been exercised as to whether the Chiltern Hundreds ought to have been granted in this case; and he stated that he had come to the conclusion that there was little discretion left to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that my mind was equally exercised; and I thought, like the right hon. Gentleman, that it was right to look very thoroughly into the matter. Looking, however, to the precedents and to what has been laid down on the subject, I thought it was my duty to grant the Chiltern Hundreds. And in this course the right hon. Gentleman concurs. It was stated by the First Lord that, there being some delay while I was looking into this matter, a communication was made by my right hon. Friend who sits behind me to the Member for Nottingham (Mr. A. Morley), so that the opportunity might be given to any hon. Member of the House to bring the matter forward. The Government had not the slightest intention of withdrawing the matter from the cognizance of the House. Then the right hon. Gentleman, in language of which no one can complain, spoke of the delicacy of the question as to what action should be taken by the Executive Government in a matter of this kind. I think that the right hon. Gentleman rather indicated than declared that it was the duty of the Government at once to act, but he said that he would not pass any censure on the Government with regard to the matter. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is a matter of extreme delicacy to determine in what instances the Executive Government is to act. The right hon. Gentleman has said that the Executive should act in cases where the Court has laid down that an hon. Member of this House has been guilty of misconduct.


I should rather have said a fraud of a monetary character.


That narrows the doctrine extremely. I thought it right to call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the very wide doctrine he had laid down. I am sure the House will feel that it is extremely difficult for the Government to discriminate what kind of fraud, what kind of misconduct, ought to lead to the expulsion of a Member of this House. There might be many cases where a question would arise with regard to the action of political opponents, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will see that it would be an extremely delicate matter for the Government to determine whether in consequence of certain actions, certain declarations made by a Court, a Government ought at once to proceed. I am glad that attention has been called to the Question, because it is a matter equally interesting to all sections of the House. The doctrine of the right hon. Gentleman would carry us very far, and its application would be attended with considerable difficulties; but I accept the declaration of the right hon. Gentleman that he does not think this a matter in which the Executive Government is deserving of censure.

MR. GLADSTONE (Mid Lothian)

A case of this kind is so important in its bearing as to the proceedings and character of the House that it is very likely to be made a subject of reference hereafter, and therefore it is desirable that we should understand with perfect clearness what is the ground upon which we take up our position. The First Lord of the Treasury made a reference to certain cases which were quite distinct from the case now immediately in question—certain other cases where it appeared that there was misconduct not less gross than that which appears to exist in the present instance. I believe that it was my own ill-fortune many years ago to grant the Chiltern Hundreds without any question in the House—without any possibility, I think, of refusing to grant it—to one gentleman, at least, who was afterwards the subject of a criminal sentence. But then there was no knowledge—though there may have been suspicion and misgiving—upon which it could have been possible to have alleged any ground for withholding the grant of the Chiltern Hundreds; and that appears to me to be the fundamental and the exclusive distinction we have to draw. Neither the First Lord of the Treasury, nor the Government, nor the House, can act in these cases except on facts which are patent, solid, and indisputable. It is not a case, as I understand it, where the Court has laid down that a Member of the House has been guilty of certain conduct. As I understand, it is a case where the Court, after a full investigation, has arrived at a solemn judgment upon it, and, moreover, it is a case where the Court has arrived at that judgment with the party possessing the unquestioned right of appeal against the judgment, but which he has not thought fit to use. I express my entire concurrence in what has been said by my right hon. Friend. I think with him that the First Lord of the Treasury would have been better advised if he had taken steps in the matter, in the discharge of the onerous and delicate duties which appertain to him in his high position; but I will not push that opinion to the length of saying that it is a proper subject for any formal censure. I hope we shall agree that no resistance is to be offered to the Motion, and I also hope that two practical results, both of which will be beneficial, may follow from the notice that has been properly taken of the question by my hon. and learned Friend. I am not going to censure the Chancellor of the Exchequer for not having altered the mode which our Constitution provides for the dismissal or withdrawal of Members from this House, because he would have the very powerful retort against me of asking why I had not done it myself. I am far from saying that the question is not a difficult one. I am far from saying that it is a question so urgent as to merit a primary claim on the attention of the Government; but it is, in my opinion, a question well deserving the attention of the House on every suitable opportunity. The whole method of providing for the withdrawal of Members of this House is at present wrong. It ought not to depend on the discretion of a Minister of the Crown, although I am bound to say I know of no case in which a Chancellor of the Exchequer of either Party has committed any gross error in the dispensing of that discretion. It ought to depend on some machinery and judgment devised by this House, and expressive of the mind, the authority, and the conviction of the House itself. On the general question of the with- drawal of Members of the House in thi connection, I will go one step further, and express this hope—that if, unhappily—God forbid it should occur—a similar case, or similar conduct similarly attested, were to recur, it might be thought by the Government of the day to be a matter in which it would be desirable to invoke the assistance of the House to bring it under the full and definite consideration of the House, not necessarily by assuming the responsibility at once of a formal Motion, but by examining carefully, and with the authority of the House, into the precedents, and then putting it fully into the position of determining what course ought to be taken. It ought not to be dealt with as a matter of routine and as a matter of course. The affair is too serious to be practically decided within the single mind of the Leader of the House, and I trust that in the event of an unhappy recurrence of such a case as this there will be a determination to submit the facts to the entire consideration and judgment of the House, with the view of laying down a rule applicable to such circumstances.

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

I do not think that the First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have succeeded in exculpating themselves from the charges which have been brought against them. It has to be borne in mind that the letter of the Judge, which was read in this House on November 28th, was dated November 27th, and that, although he did not use the word "fraud" in the letter, still in the Judgment he used the word "fraud," and convicted the hon. Member on the charge. The First Lord of the Treasury endeavoured to establish a parallel between the case of Mr. Gent-Davis and another most painful case with which we have been made acquainted by the newspapers. But, Sir, there is no analogy whatever between the two cases. There is a great deal of difference in the moral guilt of a man who falls a victim, after a long and laborious life, to over speculation, and that of a man brought down by personal extravagance. But that is not the distinction which I wish to establish. The case referred to by the First Lord of the Treasury was not adjudicated upon until the hon. Member implicated had ceased to be a Member of the House; but in this case the adjudication was made while the hon. Member for Kennington was still a Member of the House, and it was not until months afterwards that the Government took action in the matter. They allowed the hon. Gentleman to remain a Member of this House some months after a decision given against him by a properly constituted tribunal. The Government say they gave us plenty of opportunity to initiate a discussion antagonistic to Mr. Gent-Davis, but it is not the duty of the Opposition to move in matters of this kind. It is for the Government to deal with a Gentleman whose presence here is descreditable to the dignity and honour of the House. We know pretty well the secret history of this transaction. The First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer put off moving this Writ as long as they could, and now they have only moved it in obedience to pressure and owing to necessity. The Government know that they are going to be beaten in the election which this Writ involves. The First Lord of the Treasury said that there ought to be the greatest delicacy in making attacks on the honour of a Member of the House. That observation would have been moat becoming if it had proceeded from any Member except the chief vendor of "Parnellism and Crime."

* SIR C. LEWIS (Antrim, N.)

I wish to point out that the whole of the facts have not even now been laid before the House. The whole case has been altered since the communication made by the Judge to the Speaker by the fact that the whole of the money for the non-payment of which the hon. Member was attached for contempt was paid after his going to prison. The tone of the speeches on this subject made from the front Opposition bench contrast strongly with that of the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool, which contained an inconsiderate and cruel attack on a man who has already suffered severely. Such an attack is perfectly unworthy of a Member of this House, especially considering that it is directed against a man who has not only been punished for the offence he has committed, but has wiped out that offence by the payment of every farthing of the money involved in the case.

* Mr. CONYBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)

I had not intended to intervene in this debate, and should not have done so if the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir C. Lewis), of all people in the world, had not come forward as an upholder of the dignity of this House. I think I may remind the hon. Baronet that I have had occasion in this House to charge him with grave breaches of trust—


I must call the attention of the hon. and learned Gentleman to the fact that it is out of order to introduce into this discussion matters which are distinctly foreign to it.


I will not remind the hon. Baronet further of transactions which he knows but too well, and of which he has no reason to be proud—


Order, order!


Well, with reference to an argument the hon. Baronet used at the end of his speech, and to which, I believe, I am permitted to reply—where he said that the whole money was repaid by this unfortunate gentleman whose case we are discussing, I wish to observe that that is not the case, that it is absolutely untrue, and that the hon. Baronet must know, as everyone else, that although Mr. Gent-Davis was helped by hon. Members on his own side of the House, he had never himself paid a farthing back.

MR. W. REDMOND (Fermanagh, N.)

Is it not an extremely strange thing that Mr. Gent-Davis should have been defended from the benches opposite by an hon. Baronet who was himself unseated for bribery and corruption?

Motion agreed to.

Back to