HC Deb 22 May 1890 vol 344 cc1600-8
*(5.5.) MR. G. W. HASTINGS (Worcestershire, E.)

Mr. Speaker, I wish, if the House will allow me, to occupy a short portion of its time. As Chairman of the Police and Sanitary Regulations Committee of this House it is, I may say, and at the wish and with the support of that Committee, that I am about to make a a few remarks. I have, Sir, brought up to your Table the Report of that Committee on the Bill which has been promoted by the Dublin Corporation, and in that Report we have endeavoured to give good reasons for all we have done with regard to that Bill and the recommendations we have made; but, Sir, it is necessary for me, as Chairman of the Committee, unfortunately, to say something on one portion of that Bill. One of the clauses of the Bill related to a road called the Blackrock Road, which runs from the city of Dublin to the Harbour of Kingstown. In former days that was the only means of communication between Dublin and Kings- town, and Parliament then, no doubt with good reason, thought fit to require the Corporation of the City of Dublin to pay one-third of the cost of the maintenance of that road. The Bill purported to relieve the Corporation from that obligation. The Committee went most carefully into the whole case. They heard a number of witnesses. They considered the evidence most carefully, and, finally, looking to the altered circumstances of the case, that a railway is now running from Dublin to Kingstown, and also a tramway, that the passenger traffic, instead of going along the road, is now carried by the tramway and the railway, both of which contribute materially to the rates of the townships of Pembroke and Blackrock, through which the road passes, they came to the conclusion that it was no longer equitable to require the City of Dublin to contribute to the maintenance of the road, and they passed a clause through Committee relieving the City of Dublin from that obligation. Well, now, the House must allow me just to say that the Police and the Sanitary Regulation Bills Committee is not an ordinary Private Bill Committee. It consists of 11 members nominated by the Committee of Selection, and these 11 members have been drawn impartially by the Committee of Selection from all the Parties in this House. Many of its members have had considerable experience in the work. I may say that I have served continuously on the Committee since the Session of 1882, and have now for four Sessions been its Chairman. We may, therefore, venture to claim some knowledge of the subject with which we deal and some experience in dealing with it. We arrived at the conclusion we did as to the Brackrock Road, of only after a long investigation— the Committee sat more than a month on the Bill—but with a most earnest desire to do justice, and only justice, between the parties whose interests were involved in the case. It was, therefore, with great surprise the Committee had laid before them by one of its members, the hon Member for Aberdeenshire (Dr. Farquharson) a report in the Irish Times of a meeting of the Blackrock Commissioners, in which the statements I will read to the House were made. I may observe that at the meeting of the Commissioners the chair was occupied by Mr. Wigham, who was one of the witnesses before the Committee, who had the fullest opportunity of stating everything he knew, and of explaining his views, and who was treated with every possible courtesy by the members of the Committee. I find at this meeting of the Blackrock Commissioners, amongst other things, this was stated— The Committee—that is, the Committee of the Commissioners in opposition to the Bill— reported that they had pointed out this hardship and injustice towards the township of Blackrock to the Committee of the House of Commons, hut without success, mainly, as they believe, through the action of one of that Committee, Mr. Thomas Sexton, M.P., who, although a promoter of the Bill, did not scruple to sit on the Committee, acting, in fact, as judge in his own case, and cross-examining the witnesses in a hostile manner, and even interfering with counsel as to their manner of conducting the case. The Commissioners 'then proceeded to pass two Resolutions upon it, which were these:— That the Commissioners hereby accord their emphatic protest against the action taken by one of the members of the Committee, Mr. Thomas Sexton, M.P., who although one of the promoters of the Bill, sat on the Committee, and used his influence as a member of the Committee in inducing them to pass the clauses which he himself approved, and acted, in fact, as an advocate for the promoters of the Bill, cross-examining the witnesses for the opposition in a hostile manner. And it was further resolved— That the Commissioners are of opinion that such conduct on the part of Mr. Sexton having unfairly prejudiced the minds of the Committee the Bill should not be allowed to become law with the several clauses against which the Commissioners petitioned standing in the form passed by the Committee, and that petitions to this effect be prepared and presented to both Houses of Parliament, and that copies of this Besolution be sent to Her Majesty's Government. I will relieve the House from any fear, if they have any, that any Question of Privilege is raised. I beg to say on behalf of the Committee that we should not trouble ourselves to raise any Question of Privilege on such statements as these. We believe the Committee, which has now been in existence some seven or eight years, commands the confidence of the House, and the House knows that the Members of the Committee only do their best to deal justly with all the interests concerned, and to pass Bills which are likely to be for the public good. The Committee wish me to lay-before the House what are the real facts of the case. I am anxious to say at once that if there is anyone responsible for the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. Sexton) sitting upon the Committee while the Dublin Corporation Bill was before it, I am ready to plead guilty to being that person, for the hon. Member, who was nominated to the Committee by the Committee of Selection, came to me before the Dublin Corporation Bill was called on, and said that if I objected in any way to his sitting on the Committee he was ready and willing to retire. I told him I was not aware of any objection, according to the Rules of the House, to his sitting on the Committee, and I have fortified myself on that point by taking the opinion of those who are the best authorities on the question, the Officials of this House, and I believe the hon. Member for West Belfast had also consulted the Chairman of Committees of the House (Mr. Courtney), who, Mr. Speaker, during your lamented indisposition, was at the time acting as Deputy Speaker, and he also consulted your counsel, and received from both authorities the statement that there was nothing to prevent him acting on the Committee. I would wish to add this, and. I add it in the presence and hearing of the other Members of the Committee, that, in my opinion, the conduct of the hon. Member for West Belfast on our Committee during the whole progress of the Bill was such as to do him honour and to raise him in the estimation of the Committee. There was not one word said by him to which it was possible to take any objection, and with regard to the statement as to his hostilely cross-examining witnesses, and, in fact, imputing to him the taking of some violent course in the matter, I give it the most emphatic contradiction. If the hon. Member had acted thus, it would have been my duty, as Chairman of the Committee, to have called him to order, and I should have done so. I never had any other feeling with regard to his conduct throughout the whole progress of the Bill than that he was rendering most material service to the Committee by the course which he took on the various clauses of the Bill. But with regard to the imputation on the Committee, that they passed these clauses because they were influenced by the hon. Member for West Belfast, I would ask the House to consider what it means. We are a Committee of 11, and it means that 10 men of honour, and I hope of some reputation, Members of this House, did what they ought not to do, and were in some way led. aside from the path of duty by the representations of one single Member of the Committee. On this question of the Blackrock Road, as on others, I think the House ought to know that the room having been cleared at the conclusion of the evidence, and the matter having been considered, that no opinion whatever was expressed by the hon. Member for West Belfast until I and the other Members of the Committee had given our own opinions upon it. I was, in fact, asked by the Committee to say, as their Chairman, what I thought would be a right decision on the question, and I gave that opinion, and in that opinion the Committee unanimously agreed. It was a unanimous opinion on the part of that Committee, and then we are told— I have no doubt by very respectable gentlemen acting as Commissioners for the Blackrock township—that we passed this clause only because we were unduly influenced by the hon. Member for West Belfast. I hope the House will understand that there is not one word of truth in any of these assertions, which may or may not be made for a purpose as to the ulterior fate of the Bill. The whole of the Committee were unanimous on the point. We are entirely of opinion we did what was right in the matter, and we hope, so far as we are concerned, that the Bill as it stands may pass into law.

(5.20.) MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)

I want to thank the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, and the Committee, for the references to myself which, acting as their spokesman, he has made. I wish to inform the House that, before the Dublin Corporation Bill came to be dealt with by the Select Committee, I learned, to my surprise, of the rumour that some Petitioners against the Bill intended to object to my presence on the Committee upon the ground that, in my capacity as Lord Mayor of Dublin, I had acted as a promoter of the Bill. I regarded the objection as unsubstantial—oven fanciful —because everyone, friend as well as opponent, was well aware I had no per- sonal interest whatever in the Bill or in any proposal in the Bill. In fact, I had no interest except such as an Irish Representative should feel in a Bill concerning the welfare of a Municipality in Ireland, and although acting as promoter, in point of fact, I had acted as moderator between the several parties to the Bill, and had promoted the progress of the Bill by making concessions for the benefits of those parties. However, Sir, I determined there should be no doubt on the matter. I was unable to consult the highest authority in the House, because at the time the question arose you, Sir, happened to be absent through illness. I submitted the case to the Deputy Chairman of the House. I had also the advantage of the opinion of the highest legal authority, the Counsel to Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chandos Leigh. I further consulted the right hon. Baronet opposite, the Member for the University of Oxford (Sir John Mowbray), the Chairman of the Committee of Selection, by which the Committee was nominated to serve, and, finally, I laid the question before the hon. Gentleman the Chairman of the Select Committee with a view of directing my action by any expression of the hon. Gentleman or any section of the Committee. Now, Sir, all these authorities agreed that there was no rule and no arrangement of this House adverse to my acting on the Committee in question, and that there was no reason why I should not serve. Some of these authorities pointed out to me that my local knowledge would be of use to that Committee, and they also directed my attention to the fact that this Select Committee, like every other Select Committee of the House, is deliberately constituted for the purpose of affording representation to all parties. Now, Sir, the Bill in question is an Irish Bill, opposed in regard to its main proposals by the Irish Government. I was the only Irish Member upon the Committee of 11. I could not ascertain upon inquiry that any of my Colleagues acquainted with Municipal affairs could spare the requisite time for giving attention to this Bill, which occupied in the result more than a dozen sittings of the Committee; and, although it would have been more convenient and more agreeable to me to retire from the Committee, heavily pressed as I was by other and more imperative Parliamentary duties, I felt that I had no option in the public interest but to serve. Now, Sir, in regard to my action on the Committee the House has heard the Chairman. I have only to add that I acted throughout for the public interest according to my sense of duty, precisely as I should act, I hope, in the case of any other private Bill in the case of any proceedings in the House. If there be one Assembly in the world more competent than any other to judge of the ignorance and of the foolish character of the suggestion that I could exert any special influence upon a Committee composed of men of all Parties in this House, that Assembly is the House of Commons itself. But, Sir, as a matter of fact, I never for a moment—and this concludes the case—I never for a moment was under any inducement to attempt to exert any influence whatever. Let me impress upon the House that every decision of the Committee in regard to every point in which these Commissioners were concerned, and in regard to every other point of the least importance whatever—that every decision of the Committee was unanimous. The Committee was composed of six supporters of the Government, four Members of the Liberal Opposition, and myself, a solitary Irish Nationalist. Every decision, as I have said, was absolutely unanimous. When the room was cleared, each discussion was initiated by the declaration of the Chairman's views. Every decision confirmed the view put forward by the Chairman. My humble share in the Judicial work of the Committee was limited to concurrence in the judgment agreed upon by every other Member without exception. With regard to the personal attack upon myself, it is so manifestly inspired by motives entitled to no respect, by mere irrational vexation and spite of disappointed Petitioners, that it does not cause me the least concern. For my part, I should not ask or wish the House to give the slightest trouble on the personal aspect of the case, but I have to say that the case has another and a graver aspect which cannot be so easily ignored. A Committee of this House has been wantonly attacked for the patient and impartial discharge of a Judicial function. The House itself, through its Committee, has been attacked, and in my humble judgment there has been a gross contempt of the High Court of Parliament—a contempt committed, Sir, not by ignorant or irresponsible individuals, not committed by inadvertence of mere spoken words, but contempt committed by a Public Body in formal and deliberate resolution. I also consider that the resolution of these Commissioners, in which they determined to continue their attack by false aspersions on the judgment of the Committee, to continue that attack in the form of the Petition to the House of Lords, is as gross and wanton an attack on the privileges of this House as was ever known. However, it is not for me, it is for Members of this House of more experience and of greater authority, Members not personally concerned in this case, to say what steps, if any, this House should take to mark its sense of a most impudent attempt to discredit the judgment of a Committee of this House in the exercise of a Judicial function, and to prejudice the proceedings on this Bill when it goes before the House of Lords.

(5.25.) SIR JOHN MOWBRAY (Oxford University)

I desire to add a few words to what has fallen from the hon. Member for East Worcestershire (Mr. Hastings) and the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. Sexton). I wish to assure the House that the Member for West Belfast came to me in the most straightforward way and said he wished to know from me, as Chairman of the Committee of Selection, whether he would be at liberty to take part in the Committee on this Bill. I told him that I considered that this Committee, consisting as it did of 11 Members elected from all parts of the House, differed entirely from an ordinary Private Bill Committee, and that I, for one, could see no objection to the hon. Member acting on it. But I went further. I said that I would consult the Committee of Selection and take their opinion. I did take their opinion. We had a large number present, and the Members were unanimously of opinion that there could be no objection to the hon. Member sitting. I communicated the opinion to him, and said I was sure from my knowledge of his character that the hon. Gentleman would not take part in any question if he was interested in it personally. The hon. Member was placed on the Committee three Parlia- ments ago, when I was sitting opposite. He has been an experienced Member of the Committee, and we thought it was quite right that he should sit on the Committee.

*(5.27.) MR. W. H. SMITH

Perhaps the House will kindly allow me to say only a few words on this question. I am sure the House will feel, whatever political differences divide Members in this House, when they are engaged in political struggles, that we are always anxious to maintain the honour and reputation of any Member of this House when he is unjustly attacked. I am sure the House will see from the remarks which have fallen from the hon. Member for Worcestershire (Mr. Hastings) and the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. Sexton) that the latter hon. Member has acted with the most scrupulous sense of honour, and entirely in the public interest all through this matter. I do not wish to follow the hon. Gentleman as to the view and opinions he has expressed with regard to the contempt of Parliament to which he refers. No doubt a contempt of Parliament has been committed by the Commissioners in question. But I think we gain more by treating such observations with the indifference which a consciousness of having done our duty in this House enables us to maintain. If I may express my own judgment on the matter it is that a great mistake has been committed by the Commissioners themselves. But they certainly will not prejudice the passage of the Bill in the other House by the course they have taken. I trust the incident will now be permitted to close with the assurance that the whole House considers that the hon. Member for West Belfast did nothing more than his duty.

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