HC Deb 08 March 1892 vol 2 cc323-32

Considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Objection taken by Mr. MacNeill, Member for South Donegal, that in the Committee of Supply, on Friday the 4th of this instant March, on the Vote for a Grant in Aid of the Cost of a Preliminary Survey for a Railway from the Coast to Lake Victoria Nyanza, Sir Lewis Pelly and Mr. Burdett-Coutts, being Directors and Shareholders, and Sir John Puleston, being a Shareholder in the East Africa Company, had voted with the Ayes, they having in his judgment a direct personal pecuniary interest in the said Grant.

(6.5.) MR. MACNEILL (Donegal, S.)

I wish, Sir, to take the first opportunity of calling the attention of the House to what I consider to be an infraction of the Privileges of this House, and to move a Resolution to the effect that the votes of the three hon. Gentlemen be disallowed in, respect of the Vote on Friday—of £20,000 for the survey of the Mombasa Railway—and of the British East Africa Company. Two of these hon. Gentlemen are Directors, and one a shareholder in that Company; they are the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. Burdett-Coutts), the senior Member for Devonport (Sir J. Puleston), and the hon. Member for North Hackney (Sir Lewis Pelly). Mr. Burdett-Coutts and Sir Lewis Pelly are, I understand, shareholders and Directors of the Company, and Sir. J. Puleston is a shareholder to the extent of £500. My contention is, that these Gentlemen having a direct interest in the money to be voted should have refrained from voting on a matter in which they were personally interested. I wish to disclaim any idea of personal discourtesy to the hon. Members, or a personal attack on them, but I bring forward this matter in the interests of Members generally. I hope the House will understand I am only making a primâ facie case; if certain things be true, as I believe them to be, it is not right that the names of these hon. Gentlemen should appear in the Division List.


The payment was not made to the Company.


If the Company's name was not mentioned, there is no doubt the money will be paid to the Company.


Read the Resolution.


I shall take my own course. Motion made, and Question proposed, 'That a sum, not exceeding £20,000, be granted to Her Majesty, for defraying the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1892, as a Grant in Aid of the preliminary Survey of the Mombasa and Victoria Nyanza Railway. The hon. Gentleman's point is that the East Africa Chartered Company is not mentioned; then I appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, who negotiated the bargain. The Chancellor of the Exchequer did not promise any money to the Company, who were to undertake all the expenses, but the Government gave a pledge that they would ask the House of Commons to vote this sum at the earliest opportunity, in order to re-imburse the Company to that extent. I say this bargain is between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Company, some of the Directors of which are Members of this House. The proposal originally was that the Government should guarantee the cost of making the railway, but fortunately the Chancellor of the Exchequer expressed the view that it would be better to proceed with caution, and that a full and ample survey of the district through which the railway was to pass should be made before the guarantee was given. The Vote for this money was placed on the Paper late last year; but in consequence of a pledge that had been given by the Government that no contentious business should be taken after a certain date, the Vote was withdrawn. In the meantime, however, in order that the valuable, winter months might not be wasted, it was arranged between Her Majesty's Government and the South Africa Company that the survey should be at once commenced. The Government appointed two Surveyors, and the Company undertook to pay them, and at the same time the Government undertook that they would bring this Vote before the House at the earliest possible opportunity, and with the aid of their mechanical majority would do their best to get this money paid out of the coffers of the country into the coffers of the Company. The three hon. Gentlemen to whom I have alluded might very well have abstained from voting on this matter. They had an enormous majority, but their votes were given because it was necessary to have an enormous majority to boom the country elections next day. However, I shall press the matter, to a Division, and, whatever may be the result, I know what the country will say. What, I ask, was the benefit of this Vote to the Company? How far does it affect the value of the shares? The paid-up capital of this Company is no less than £556,000, divided into 26,000 shares of £20 each. Now, if you divide the sum I have named amongst the shareholders, you will see that each shareholder will benefit to the extent of 15s. on every share that he holds. In this way, I take it, there is direct pecuniary interest on the part of the shareholders in this Vote of the House, and I contend that hon. Members should not have voted for the handing over of a present of £20,000 by the Government to this Company. I have exercised some industry in the search for precedents an this matter, and I will give three, for I think, in the interests of public men and the purity of public life, we ought to have some idea of the exact position. My first contention is, that none of these three gentlemen would have dared to appear on a Committee upstairs on a matter in which they were similarly interested. Standing Order No. 118 contains an emphatic declaration which Members of a Committee have to sign to the effect that they have no personal interest in the Bill which they are about to consider. The Gentlemen to whom I refer should have signed a declaration that they were Directors of the South Africa Company, having an enormous interest in the said Company, and that they had been promised by the Government, if they would expend £20,000 on this survey, the Government would exert its influence over its mechanical majority to pay them back this money out of the pockets of the poor taxpayers. My next authority is a learned and distinguished gentleman (Sir Erskine May), who, in his book on Parliamentary Practice, says:— In Parliament it is a well-defined rule that any Member who has a direct pecuniary interest in a matter shall not be allowed to vote, but the interest must be immediate and not of a general or remote character. I do not know whether any interest could be more immediate than that which the hon. Members have in the South Africa Company. I will mention a case which occurred in 1797. Mr. Pitt, brought before the House a Resolution to compensate some of the holders of the Loyalty Loan, which had lately very much decreased in value, and it turned out that no fewer than 14 Members of the House were affected by that vote. The next day, when the Resolution came before the Speaker, Mr. Sheridan said he had heard with astonishment that some gentlemen had given their votes that this money should be raised upon the public, which money was—a great part of it, at least—to go into their own pockets. He could not conceive anything more indecent or more indiscreet at a time when the House was unpopular—and deserved to be so—than for gentlemen to disgrace its proceedings by votes of that kind. From the Ministers the country expected nothing but deceit; but if these proceedings were carried on, the House would become more unpopular than the Ministers. I wonder what Sheridan would say if he were here now. This Parliament of which I have been speaking was the Parliament that Fox had to leave on account of misconduct. In that Parliament there was a Mr. Manning, the distinguished father of a more distinguished son. He was entitled to receive recuperative money under that loan, and he placed himself in the hands of the House. He said he wished to do nothing more nor less than his duty, and he desired to know whether it was consistent with the practice of the House that a Member in his position should give a vote. Mr. Speaker Addington, in answer to that appeal, said— I have always understood the rule and practice to be that no Member can vote on any question, subject to some qualifications, which involves in it an immediate interest. If any measure is submitted to this House, the substance of which is to confer an advantage or to diminish a loss, I am satisfied that it is not consistent with the procedure this House has adopted that any Member should give a vote by which he will gain or benefit if the matter for which he votes is carried into law. Mr. Manning at once said that he should decline to vote on the matter; but the Speaker appeared to be very desirous that the position should be thoroughly understood, and he again rose and expressed his opinion on the subject. Another case which I have discovered occurred in 1604, when a Member voted on a question in which he was directly interested, and his vote was disallowed. I will give the hon. Gentlemen one more chance. Do they expect to derive any benefit from that £20,000, and, if so, why do they take it out of the coffers of the country? I am sorry to detain the House, but I hope the matter will not have to be discussed for another century, and that a standing case will have been established. I have been unable to find any fuller reference than two and a half lines to the incident of 1604, but hon. Gentlemen will recollect that that was a reactionary Parliament—a Parliament of Jingoes. I think that this Parliament should not be behind the Parliaments of 1604 and 1797 in the vigilant care with which it watches its own proceedings; and I contend that, as a Member who has signed a Petition cannot present it, and as a Member who is interested in a Bill cannot support it by his vote, neither should gentlemen who are interested in a Company of this kind be allowed to vote money from the public coffers into those of their own Company. Is an unreformed Parliament to set us an example of good taste in these matters? There were gentlemen who took part in that Debate who disputed Mr. Speaker's ruling, or, rather, the advice Mr. Speaker gave to the House, for he left the House to judge—and that, I suppose, Mr. Courtney, was what you meant—that the House would judge—when you gave me an answer the other night. There was a Mr. Ryder, some nonentity of the time, who expressed himself in favour of vested rights. I do not know who he was, but he managed to get into Parliament, and finds on the Records semihonourable mention. He argued that it was the invariable practice for Members to vote on matters in which they were interested, and he said that in all cases where taxes were laid on horses, carriages, dogs, &c, which taxes would fall more especially on some Members than on others, those Members did freely vote against the imposition of such taxes, though by strict application of the Rule against pecuniary interest their votes would be disallowed. But Mr. Speaker Addington said the hon. Member had misconceived the ruling; the cases put were merely those in which Members were incidentally interested with the rest of the country, and the ruling he had laid down, according to former decisions of the House, was meant for immediate and direct interest. Now, the supposed analogy to the case of Railway Bills cannot be supported. Individual Directors have voted on such Bills; but in such cases the schemes involved great outlay on the part of promoters, and the profit was uncertain, and in no case did the decision involve payment of money by the Government. The cases are in no way parallel. I do not wish in the slightest degree to overstate the facts, but I say in this case it appears the Government, before coming to the House, consulted with the Directors, and said, "Use this money for the purpose, and we will recoup you from money voted by Parliament." Now, I cannot think of anything in connection with voting Supplies more unconstitutional than for hon. Gentlemen, members of the Board, to take part in a vote on such a question. We hold the control of the Government by our control of public money. I think I have stated the matter temperately, and I put it simply as a matter of principle, and wish to know if the proceeding on Friday night is one that should be followed?

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the votes of Sir Lewis Pelly, Mr. Burdett-Coutts, and Sir John Puleston, given on Friday, the 4th of March, in favour of the Grant in Aid of the Cost of a Preliminary Survey for a Railway from the Coast to Lake Victoria Nyanza, be disallowed."—(Mr. MacNeill.)

(6.35.) SIR J. PULESTON (Devonport)

I do not complain in any way of the manner in which the hon. Member has put the case, and I quite appreciate that he has taken his action entirely as a matter of public policy. I may say at once that if I had given the matter a moment's thought on Friday, I should have left the House without voting. I followed the Debate just as I would the proceedings on any public question, and, with Members on both sides, I supported the Resolution. The hon. Member has quoted some ancient precedents, but there are some later ones. The hon. Member has referred to one, but not to that of 1883, when a Water Bill was before the House, and on what Mr. Coope voted, though he was largely interested. Then later, when a London and North Western Railway Bill was before the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dublin University (Mr. Plunket) both spoke and voted. These votes were never disallowed; and I think these precedents are pretty conclusive, though, as a matter of good taste, if I had thought upon the matter on Friday, I should have abstained from voting.

MR. J. E. ELLIS (Nottingham, Rushcliffe)

Was there a subsidy in either of these cases?


No, there was not; but, as I understand, the contention of the hon. Member is that something is done for the benefit of the Company concerned.


I did not say that.


Or for the benefit of shareholders. In this Vote on Friday a railway is concerned; and, not only is this money to be spent in a survey, but it is supplemented by additional sums from the Company. So that it is an outlay not directly to the interest of the Company. The large majority by which the Vote was agreed to bore testimony to the view of the Committee. Hon. Members may remember a remarkable scene at Exeter Hall in support of this proposal for a railway to Uganda, and it is well-known that one great object in this railway is to minimise the Slave Trade. For this and other reasons the proposal was affirmed by a large majority. No one can say that the object, the suppression of the Slave Trade, is sacrificed to the interest of shareholders. Whatever be my interest, direct or indirect, near or remote, in the Company with which I am, in a small way concerned, I still think I was perfectly justified in voting as I did.

(6.40.) MR. BURDETT-COUTTS (Westminster)

I join with my hon. Friend in disclaiming any hostile feeling towards the hon. Member opposite in consequence of this Motion; but, at the same time, I hope he will not think I am disrespectful to him if I say that it would have been more satisfactory if some Member of of the House of long standing and great experience had asked the opinion of the House on this occasion. I cannot but attach significance to the empty state of the Front Bench opposite. I take the preliminary point whether the money does or does not go to the Company. As a matter of fact, the Company does not care in the least who constructs this railway—whether the Company does it, or another company, or the Government. This money—this £20,000—certainly does not go into the hands of the Company. The Company only execute a survey for the Government, the responsibility for which the Government undertakes. We are carrying British enterprise into this country, which is certainly not a rich one, and which is afflicted by one of the curses of humanity we hope and think we can abolish. I think we might be credited with something more than merely commercial motives. We have worked hard—we have received no dividends. This question ought not to be left in any uncertainty in this House, and, therefore, I am grateful to the hon. Member for having brought it forward. The basis of the hon. Member's contention is that we had no right to vote because members of the Company have a personal and pecuniary interest in the matter. I am ready to accept that basis, and I say it is an issue that hangs every day over the head of nearly every Member in the House. We are constantly asked to vote upon Railway Bills promoted by companies in which hon. Members are shareholders. Yet such shareholders never think of walking out of the House when the Division is called. I confess it never occurred to me that I was doing anything contrary to custom or good taste in voting as I did. But I do not wish to throw myself on the indulgence of the House; it is desirable and necessary that we should come to some clear understanding upon a difficulty that will be constantly presented to Members of the House. I am perfectly willing to leave the matter in the hands of the House, repudiating at the same time any accusation of having acted in bad taste, for it never presented itself to my mind, nor, I think, to the minds of my hon. Friends, that there was any violation of good taste involved in following custom and precedent as we did.

(6.46.) GENERAL SIR LEWIS PELLY (Hackney, N.)

I have no doubt of the good feeling of the hon. Member in making this Motion, but I do not see in the slightest degree its application to myself in the light of the precedents quoted. This is a Grant in Aid by the House of Commons for the purpose of a survey, and the survey is carried out bonâ fide by the Government in obedience to Articles 3 and 4 of the General Act of the Brussels Conference, by which they undertake to carry a railway from the lakes to the coast. It is true the East Africa Company advanced the money in the autumn, but they get no present advantage from this. The Government say, "We are going to make this survey, but we have not got men on the spot to accompany our surveying officers. Allow us to use your men to go up with our officers." They have this use, and the money is laid out. I consider I had nothing to do with the matter, further than that the company had to advance the money on account of Government. If the railway is carried out, it will be because the Government consider the survey favourable to the construction; and if the survey is not favourable, they will not carry it out. They will not ask us, and we do not care a straw whether the Government carry it out or not. If they come to us to carry out Article 4 of the Brussels Act, we will do it to the best of our ability, as the Article binds us to do. All we want is to see the railway pass through our territory, so that trade may be opened and slavery suppressed.


It will be in accordance with the practice of the House if the three hon. Members now withdraw.

The said hon. Members then withdrew.

(6.50.) MR. MORTON (Peterborough)

I do not intend, and I have no desire, to cast any personal reflection upon the three hon. Gentlemen. On Friday last I took the opportunity to call attention to this matter before the hon. Members voted.

It being ten minutes before Seven of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his report to the House.

Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow.