HC Deb 05 March 1891 vol 351 cc266-9

I wish, Mr. Speaker, to raise a question of Privilege. I desire to call the attention of the House to the fact that I, as a Member of this House, was libelled yesterday by the chief editor or someone in the office of a daily print called the Daily News. I am told that it is a paper printed for the use of Gladstonians, and is read by them; but some of my friends may read the paper too, and, as it imputes to me dishonourable conduct as a Member of the House, I think you will admit that it may impute the same conduct to any other Member of this House to-morrow. The libel is as follows:— At a late hour on Monday night Mr. Atkinson moved the House into Committee on his Marriage of Nonconformists (Attendance of Registrars) Bill. This was contrary to an understanding that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. The only way out of the difficulty in which the House now finds itself is that the Bill shall pass through Committee pro formâ, to be re-committed to a Select Committee, and that course will probably be taken. I do not often read that paper, but yesterday morning some kind friend sent it to me. I immediately wrote to the editor, and sent a special messenger with the letter. I quoted the words that he had printed, and then I said that what he had stated was a falsehood. I said also that I should be very glad if he would inform his informants of this, as, though they seemed to know so much of what was going on in the House, their information was quite worthless, and worse than worthless. Then I wound up most politely by saying that, although I was a political opponent, I always fought fairly, if as strongly as I could, and I hoped that if in future he dealt with me again he would try to deal with me fairly. I also said that the bearer would wait for a reply. The bearer came back and said there was no reply. So I thought that perhaps the editor did not like my note, and I would wait to see it in print. I have turned the paper over this morning in every direction, but there is nothing of my letter in the paper. If a man tells a falsehood, wittingly or unwittingly, when he is told that it is a falsehood it is his duty to confess it, and it was the editor's duty to give me an opportunity of contradicting the falsehood. I now say that when on Monday I came to the House to do my duty I did not know that I was entitled to take the Committee stage of my Bill, but I was informed of the fact by friends. I have consistently declined to go to a Select Committee, because I have been obstructed in that way for six years, and because I do not want to be obstructed again. After having obtained the Committee stage in the most regular manner, after consulting the clerks at the Table, my friends in the House and other hon. Members on the other side, whom I told in, I hope, a straightforward and gentlemanly manner what I was going to do—after doing all this it is hard to be held up as a man who had taken advantage of the House by taking a stage when those hon. Members who desired to get home early had gone away. If I would do a thing of that kind I am not fit to sit in this House, either on this side or on that side. I wish, Mr. Speaker, to move that the editor be brought here to the bar of the House and made to apologise. If I had told a falsehood to anyone I would apologise, and I think the editor ought to. My right hon. Friend the leader of the House will now regret that he did not help me to carry my measure to make people sign their names to the leaders they write because now we should know who wrote this libel, and in future we should be able to regard that person as one who has told a falsehood. Under these circumstances, I put myself in the hands of the House, not as Mr. Atkinson, because what I say and do has nothing to do with it, but as a Member of Parliament engaged in the performance of his constitutional duties, and who was actually legislating by your favour at the time, and was doing his duty to his constituents and pushing a Bill which has been obstructed persistently for six years by those who ought to have helped it forward. The Attorney General will confirm what I say, that on that very night I was appealed to by one of my right hon. Friends—before the Attorney General jumped up—to go into a Select Committee, and I said "No, I would not," for I could not agree to it. Therefore, under such circumstances, I ask Mr. Speaker, and I ask the House generally, to be good enough to protect the privileges not only of myself, but of the other 699 Members at all events.

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

I trust my hon. Friend will be satisfied with the statement which he has made to the House. Undoubtedly, it is a painful matter for him to be accused of dishonourable conduct in a newspaper of considerable position; but I am sure greater experience and knowledge of the practice of Parliament and of the reports, which are usually so very accurate, of proceedings in this House will induce him to overlook what I believe to be a mistake and not a wilful misrepresentation on the part of the journal in question; and to accept the assurance which I give him that I distinctly understood he refused to allow this Bill to be referred to a Select Committee, and that the course he took on the occasion in question was one which he was entitled to take, and certainly was not in derogation of his duties as a Member of Parliament.

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