§ MR. SWIFT MACNEILL (Donegal, S.)
I desire, Mr. Speaker, with great respect, to bring under your notice what I conceive to be a breach of the custom of Parliament with reference to the canvassing, direct and indirect, by the agents of a monopolist company called the National Telephone Company. This matter has had fresh emphasis given to it by what occurred only a minute ago, when the Secretary for the Treasury gave an answer which shows that the Government are supposed to have conceded to the members of this monopoly——
§ MR. HANBURY
It is quite true that my hon. friend used the word "concessions," but I cannot admit that any concession whatever has been made.
§ MR. SWIFT MACNEILL
I am relieved at hearing that statement, but at the same time I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that a concession would be a matter of argument. When we have the facts before us we shall know whether it is a concession or not. The question which I desire to bring under the notice of the House is a canvassing circular sent to me, and to me only in my capacity of Member of Parliament, in the hope of influencing my vote. This canvassing circular is signed by no fewer than 16 Members of the Unionist Party, who hold among them 47 directorships.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member has risen to a point of order; and I must ask him to confine himself to those matters that are relevant to the point of order.
§ MR. SWIFT MACNEILL
Yes, Sir, I may be a little out of order. It is not, 609 perhaps, without interest that these matters are out of order to those hon. Gentlemen. The circular runs as follows:We, the undersigned, beg to express the hope that after the Second Reading of the Telegraph (Telephonic Communication, etc.) Bill you will support the motion to refer it to a Select Committee.The alpha to these signatures is "John Lubbock." The right hon. Baronet is a gentleman of whom I say in his presence that he is directly and personally interested in this telephone company. Dates are of importance here. The Second Reading of this Bill came on on Tuesday, 20th June. whereas on June 15th a circular was issued out of the Stock Exchange announcing an issue of £263,000 3½ per cent. debenture stock. The right hon. Gentleman in that circular is advertised as trustee for the debenture-holders, and it is also announced that the bankers to the company are the eminent firm of Messrs. Robarts, Lubbock, and Co. It is clear, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman was endeavouring to influence my vote when he sent that circular to me signed, 'The Right Hon. Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M.P." There is something rather insidious in this circular. Although it is signed by sixteen Members, it is remarkable for those who have not signed it. There are no fewer than four right hon. Gentlemen, Members of this House, whose names are not attached to the circular.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
Order, order! The hon. Member is not addressing himself to any point of order. The hon. Member is, apparently, about to make an attack on four gentlemen who have not signed the circular.
§ MR. SWIFT MACNEILL
Far from it, Sir. The right hon. Gentlemen who have not signed the circular are to be commended for not signing it, and I consider therefore that the circular is all the more insidious. I desire to call the attention of the House to it precedent which occured on March 16, 1888. On that occasion the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Wolverhampton drew attention to a circular which had been issued by Colonel Hughes asking hon. Members to vote for a motion in connection with grievances alleged to exist on the part of workmen employed at Woolwich 610 Arsenal, and the then Speaker held that such a circular was contrary to the usages of the House and tended to lower its dignity. It is within the memory of the House that in the course of a speech on Tuesday night the right hon. Gentleman the Member for London University spoke strongly in favour of the National Telephone Company as against municipal trading. Enclosed in the circular to which I have referred is a post-card asking me to say whether I am or not in favour of municipal trading. That post-card, taken in connection with the right hon. Gentleman's speech and his capacity as paid agent of this company, is clearly a breach of Parliamentary etiquette. For mercy's sake let us advocate either public interests or our own interests. If we do the latter let us say so, and not style ourselves public men. I do not suggest that this circular is a breach of privilege, but I contend that it is a gross breach of Parliamentary decorum, and in accordance with the precedent I ask you to say so. Whatever may be your ruling, Sir, I have made a statement which will be heard and read by the public.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
I am unable to see that the hon. Member has brought under my notice anything that amounts to a breach of any Standing Order or rule of this House. The hon. Member has brought two matters before the House. One is a circular signed by a number of Members requesting hon. Members to attend and vote against a particular motion on a Bill. That is a very common proceeding, not only on the part of private Members, but it is a daily proceeding, as we all know, on the part of Government Whips and Whips of the Opposition. The mere fact of the issuing of a circular requesting hon. Members to attend and vote is not contrary to the usage of this House. But the suggestion of the hon. Member, as I understand, is that the right hon. Baronet ought not to have sent such a whip because he has some personal pecuniary interest in the Bill. It is not for me to say whether he has a pecuniary, personal interest or not, but if he has that does not prevent him from signing a whip. The matter is in the discretion of each hon. Member whether he should send one or not, and is not contrary to any rule of this House. The right bon. Gentleman would be perfectly in order, even assuming that he had a 611 pecuniary, interest, in addressing this House and arguing in favour of the vote which the House should give, though he ought not to record his vote; and I certainly cannot say that it is out of order for him to send a circular asking hon. Members to vote in a particular way. If the hon. Member votes on a question in which he has a direct personal pecuniary interest, apart from his public general one, that is a matter which, as he knows, the House may inquire into. But I cannot see that in the matter the hon. Member has brought under my notice there has been any breach of privilege or of the rules and orders of this House. Then the other matter the hon. Member brought before me was the question of a circular which, I understand, was issued with a postcard inviting Members to express their opinion as to whether they adopted the same view as the right hon. Baronet with regard to municipal trading. That is not at all on all fours with the case which was cited by the hon. Member. The case cited by the hon. Member was one in which a Member had written and requested hon. Members to sign a postcard, which he enclosed, pledging themselves to vote for or against a measure which was coming before the House. The Speaker was appealed to. He did not rule that that was a breach of order or a breach of privilege. He said—and I entirely agree with him—that it was contrary to the best usages and traditions of the House. But the hon. Member is well aware that there is at present a motion standing on the Orders of the House for a Joint Committee of both Houses to be appointed to inquire into the question of municipal trading. It has stood there for, I think, some weeks now, and the right hon. Baronet from the beginning of the session onwards has had many motions in respect of Private Bills in regard to municipal trading, and I cannot see that he is committing any breach of the privileges of the House or its Orders in inviting Members to attend, or express their interest in a meeting in a committee-room for the purpose of considering a question which is about to come before a Joint Committee of both Houses. It appears to me quite in accordance with the common practice, and I cannot say that the hon. Member has brought before me anything that calls for my intervention.
§ * SIR JOHN LUBBOCK (London University)
As I have been referred to personally, perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words. I only had notice of this question as I came into the House two or three minutes ago, and I think I might reasonably complain that I had not longer notice. Still, it is not material, as my answer is so simple. I have not been acting on behalf of the Telephone Company, but from the beginning of the session, at the request of the London and other Chambers of Commerce I have been opposing the extension of municipal trading, and it is on that ground that I oppose the present Bill. You, Sir, have been good enough to say that I have acted within my right. The hon. Member supposes I have some pecuniary interest in the National Telephone Company. Bat whether the Bill passes or not makes not the slightest difference to me in a pecuniary sense. I am, it is true, one of the trustees, not however for the company, but for the debenture-holders, and my duty as trustee simply is, if necessary, to protect the creditors against the company. I am not, however, myself a debenture-holder, nor do I hold a single share in the company. I have no pecuniary interest whatever in the matter, and hope, therefore, that the House will consider that the attack which the hon. Gentleman has thought fit to make upon me is quite uncalled for.