HC Deb 13 April 1891 vol 352 cc377-82
MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)

I beg to ask the right hon. Baronet the Member for the University of Oxford a question of which I have given him private notice. It relates to a published correspondence which has been read by many hon. Members with surprise and great dissatisfaction. It was published in the Times of Friday last, and the correspondence has passed between Lord Stalbridge, Chairman of the London and North-Western Railway Company, and the right hon. Baronet. A Joint Committee of both Houses was constituted for the purpose of considering the question of railway rates, and five Members of the House were nominated by the Committee of Selection. I have no complaint to make of the right hon. Baronet's action or of that of the Committee of Selection. The right hon. Baronet commands the respect of all Parties in the House. Judging from the facts, I should say that both the right hon. Baronet and the Committee of Selection have in this matter rightly vindicated the liberties of Members of the House of Commons. But an attempt has been made to influence the Committee of Selection, and I wish to ask the right hon. Baronet whether it is admissible, or in accordance with usage, for a Member of the House of Peers to interfere in the internal economy of the House of Commons in regard to the functions of the Committee of Selection. I should like to know also whether it is admissible, or in accordance with usage, that a gentleman in the position of Lord Stalbridge, a promoter of a Bill to be considered by a Committee, should endeavour to influence the Chairman of the Committee of Selection. In his letters Lord Stalbridge objects to three hon. Members who were nominated to serve on the Committee of the right hon. Baronet—Mr. Colman, Mr. Hunter, and Mr. T. Dickson, who were nominated to serve in place of Mr. Colman, who voluntarily withdrew. But from a passage in one of the letters the public would infer that Mr. Colman had been discharged from attendance in consequence of the letter of Lord Stalbridge. I wish to ask whether it is not the case that Mr. Colman first learned that he had to serve on the Committee late on the night of Tuesday, March 17; that on the next day Mr. Colman communicated with the right hon. Baronet in the House and with the Committee Clerk, informing them that he was a Petitioner against one of the Bills, and therefore it was impossible for him to serve; and that the matter having been considered by the Committee of Selection, Mr. Colman was discharged? Lord Stalbridge objected to Mr. Hunter as a Member of the Committee on the ground that he had taken the side of the traders in a book which he had pub lished. It is absurd to suppose that the action of any man, either as an author, practitioner at the Bar, or Member of this House, should debar him from serving on a Committee; and I ask the right hon. Baronet to state that it is not true that Mr. Hunter has given advice to any of the Petitioners against the Bill. No statement has been made by the Committee of Selection with reference to Mr. Dickson, but Lord Stalbridge said the hon. Member was practically in the same position as Mr. Colman. I ask the right hon. Baronet to say that there is no truth in the suggestion. I ask whether the Committee of Selection has not determined to maintain Mr. Dickson in his position, and whether there is anything to prevent the hon. Member from discharging his duties in a disinterested and impartial spirit?

SIR J. MOWBRAY (Oxford University)

There are so many questions involved in the statement made that it is somewhat difficult, not having a paper to refer to, and having only had private notice that a question not specified would be put to me, to follow them. But I will endeavour to answer the questions as fully as I can. It seems to me that the first two questions involve considerations of Constitutional Law. As to the suggested action of Lord Stalbridge, I should say that it would be most unconstitutional if any- thing of the kind occurred, but I apprehend that Lord Stalhridge acted, not as Member of the other House, but as Chairman of the London and North Western Railway Company. I do not think, therefore, that the question can be magnified into one of a Breach of Privilege between the two Houses. I am glad that the hon Member has afforded me an opportunity of stating in the House the circumstances that guided the Committee of Selection in the constitution of this Committee. On the 17th of March a Committee, consisting of five Members, was formed. One of the Members was the right hon. Member for the Epping Division of Essex. The following morning a letter was received from the right hon. Gentleman saying that he would be unable to serve on the Committee owing to the state of his health. Another of the Members, the hon. Member for Norwich sent a letter stating that he was appearing as a Petitioner against one of the Bills, and he was therefore discharged from the Committee. The action the Committee of Selection thus took was quite independent of Lord Stalhridge's letter. The hon. Member for Norwich spoke to me in the House next day after receiving notice of his nomination. I told the hon. Member then that a mistake had been made, and that the Committee of Selection had not known the hon. Member's position. The moment it was known, however, the hon. Member was discharged, and this took place before the receipt of Lord Stalbridge's letter. The hon. Member for Norwich was replaced by the hon. Member for the St. Stephen's Green Division of Dublin, who has sat for 17 years in this House, and is well known and much respected. The only possible objection in his case is that on some occasion he gave evidence before the Railway Commission that railway rates in Ireland ought to be assimilated to railway rates in England. We thus filled up those two places the hon. Member for Norwich being replaced by the hon. Member for the St. Stephen's Green Division of Dublin. The Committee of Selection thought it rather a strong measure that the Chairman of the London and Northwestern Company should address a remonstrance to us in respect to our action in this House. We have dis- charged our duties to the best of our ability; at the same time, if there-were substantial reasons for questioning what we have done, we could not object to our attention being called to the facts. The Committee of Selection knew, before they adopted the name of Mr. Hunter, that he had been connected with the Board of Trade and with railway matters; but, personally, I took special means to inform myself that Mr. Hunter's connection with the Board of Trade had ceased. The hon. Member had practised as Counsel before the Railway Commission, and it does not appear that that fact should necessarily constitute a disqualification to serve on the Railway Rates Committee. The hon. Member has also published a book on railways which is, I am told, an ordinary text-book, and not containing any special views. Mr. Hunter has not sent me a copy of that book; but the Committee of Selection have had sent to them a good many books and pamphlets which it has been impossible for them to read. Indeed, it would be a very serious thing if it were regarded as a duty of the Committee of Selection that they should read every book sent to them. Hon. Members of this House, who have been desirous of being placed on certain Committees, have frequently sent books for me to read to show that before coming to this House they had distinguished themselves in connection with this or that subject. But I have never read any of them. The Committee did not purpose to send any answer to Lord Stalhridge, but, meeting Lord Stalhridge, his Lordship asked me what we had done, and I told him that we had! discharged Mr. Colman, but that we saw no reason to interfere with the nomination of Mr. Hunter. Lord Stalhridge intimated that I should hear of it again7 and I expected that a question would be addressed to me in this House. An hour afterwards I was surprised to receive a telegram from Lord Stalhridge— it was addressed to me from the House of Commons, not from the House of Lords—and said " Please send me a letter in reply to mine irrespective of conversation, Stalhridge." I sent his Lordship a guarded letter, which explained nothing more than he knew already, stating that I had no objection to repeating what I had said in the Lobby as one friend speaking to another, but not as Chairman of the Committee. I told the noble Lord what was notorious—that the Committee had discharged Mr. Colman and had retained Mr. Hunter. I only wish to add that the Committee have acted throughout with absolute unanimity. For 18 years I have had the honour of presiding over the Committee, and during that time we have not had a single division, but have been one and all responsible for the selections we have made. Our duties have been growing every year; we have acted with perfect unanimity, and I trust we have discharged our duties to the satisfaction of the House.

MR. HUNTER (Aberdeen, N.)

I wish, Sir, by way of explanation, to add a few words in reference to a paragraph in Lord Stalbridge's letter which has not been referred to. I regret that before sending his communication to the Committee Of Selection, Lord Stalbridge did not communicate with me, because he makes statements in that letter as to which he could personally have had no knowledge whatever, and it would have been desirable on his part to have ascertained beforehand whether those statements were correct or not. Had he done this he never would have sent that letter to the Committee, because in it he stated that I had committed myself to certain definite views in the matter of railway charges; that statement is absolutely incorrect. I had expressed no opinion on these charges whatever, for the simple reason that I had not any opinion on the subject, and I have no opinion on the subject, for the equally good reason, that up to the present time I do not know what those charges are. I have not had time to study the charges nor do I know what are the points in dispute between the Railway Companies and the Board of Trade. Therefore that statement of Lord Stalbridge is founded on absolutely incorrect data.

MR. W. B. GLADSTONE (Edinburgh, Mid Lothian)

The position of the Committee of Selection is one of very great importance, and the Committee is entitled to know whether it has the support of the House. The leader of the House in his own person is competent to give expression to the general feeling of the House upon that subject, and I should think it presumptuous if I were to undertake that duty. A question has been raised in the House impugning the conduct of the Committee of Selection, and the Chairman has given the House a detailed and lucid statement which appears to have met with the decided approbation of the House. I think, on the whole, it would be desirable, if the right hon. Gentleman does not think it superfluous, that he should give expression to the sentiment of the House, as his doing so would strengthen the hands of the Committee in the discharge of their duties.


I have no hesitation in responding at once to the invitation of the right hon. Gentleman, although any observations on my part may be considered to be superfluous. Really, Sir, I feel, after the statement of my right hon. Friend behind me that any remarks on my part would be superfluous in order to express, as far as I am concerned, and I think I may speak for the House too, the complete confidence which we all possess in the discretion and perfect fairness with which the Committee of Selection discharge their duties. It has fallen to me more than once to express this confidence on the part of the House. I should have risen at once when my right hon. Friend behind me sat down if it had appeared to me that the slightest doubt existed in the mind of any hon. Member as to the course the Committee pursued being one which would receive the unanimous support of the House. I hope my right hon. Friend behind me will feel that there is no lack of cordiality in the expression of the complete confidence which, I believe, is felt by every Member of the House.