§ Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [2nd February],"That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant 195 to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the City of London, in the room of the hon. Alban George Henry Gibbs, who, since his election for the said City, has undertaken a contract, with the Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, for the public service."—(Sir A. Acland-Hood.)
§ Question again proposed.
§ Debate resumed.
§ MR. SWIFT MACNEILL (Donegal, S.)
said he had placed on the Paper notice of an Amendment which was in accordance with precedent, its object being to secure the appointment of a Select Committee of seven Members to consider whether Messrs. Vicary and Alban Gibbs were disqualified from sitting or voting as Members of the House under the Statute 22 Geo. 3, cap. 45. This Amendment was similar to the one moved in 1869 in the case of Sir Sydney Waterlow, who had given notice to the Speaker that he was a contractor to the Government. On that occasion the House did not accept the mere allegation of his contractorship as a matter about which there was no dispute, but it exercised its own discretion in the matter. Now he was making no imputation whatever on the Messrs. Gibbs; they were doing, no doubt, what they thought was right and proper. But the statute referred to in his Amendment was very specific. It said that no person, directly or indirectly, undertaking or enjoying the whole or any part of any contract made with the Commissioners of the Treasury, or generally on account of the public service, was disqualified from being elected to Parliament all such time he held such contract or any share thereof or received any benefit or emoluments arising therefrom. What had occurred in this case was that Messrs. Gibbs acted as brokers on behalf of the Chilian Government and executed a contract for the sale of two warships to the British Government. It was a very great question whether such a proceeding made them contractors 196 under the provision he had quoted There was no more difficult question to decide in law than the one affecting the relations of principal and agents. Even Messrs. Gibbs had considerable doubt as to their actual position, and Mr. Vicary Gibbs in one of his speeches said he did not know whether he was a contractor or not. He (Mr. MacNeill) had written a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer warning him that in accepting the resignation of Mr. Gibbs he would, under the circumstances, be exceeding his discretion in the matter of the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds. He could not trace a single instance in which a Member of the House of Commons, having entered into a contract with a Government Department, had been allowed to resign without the House exercising its own jurisdiction to find out whether he was a contractor or not. It was not enough for a man to write to Mr. Speaker saying "I am a contractor"; the question was one of the law and not of fact; it was an inference to be drawn from a long series of Acts. This was not a mere dilettante matter of Parliamentary formality, it was a question of the rights of the House, because it was necessary that transactions of a pecuniary nature between the Government and private Members should be brought under the cognisance of the House. He submitted it was absolutely necessary for the protection of the rights of Parliament that the House should itself decide whether or not Messrs. Gibbs were in the position of contractors. He begged to move.
To leave out from the word 'That,' to the end of the Question, and add the words 'a Select Committee of seven Members be appointed to consider whether Mr. Vicary Gibbs and Mr. Alban Gibbs are disqualified from sitting or voting as Members of this House under the Statute 22 Geo. 3, c. 45, and to report their opinion thereon.'"—(Mr. Swift MacNeill.)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question"
§ * THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. AKERS-DOUGLAS, Kent, St.), Augustine's
said the hon. Member who had raised 197 this question had told them that the House ought to decide whether or not these gentlemen were contractors; but he had to maintain that the precedents cited by the hon. Member—those of Sir Sydney Waterlow and Baron Rothschild —were not analogous to the present case. The question that arose in the case of Baron Rothschild was whether he was qualified to retain his seat in the House because he had contracted for a Government loan, and whether such a proceeding amounted to a contract within the meaning of the Act. The Committee to whom the question was referred decided that he was not a contractor within the meaning of the Act, and that he was therefore qualified to retain his seat, and that decision was afterwards made clear by statute. In the case of Sir Sydney Waterlow there was a petition against his election in 1868 on the ground that he held a Government contract, but the petition was withdrawn, and the hon. Member sat during an autumn session. In the following year, however, the question was again raised, a Committee was appointed, and they reported that Sir Sydney Waterlow was disqualified, and that his seat was vacant. In both those cases there was a doubt whether any disqualification had occurred, and the Members, by retaining their seats, must be held to have disputed their disqualification. In other words, they were fighting against proposed disqualification, and desired to continue their membership of the House. That fact distinguished those cases from the present ones. In the present case two gentlemen, who were lately Members of the House, had admitted to the Speaker that they had accepted a contract, and that they were disqualified from sitting in the House, and in the usual course, a Motion had been made for the issue of new Writs to fill the vacancies caused by the forfeiture of their seats. They were anxious to resume the places which they had forfeited by accepting the contract. As had been stated by the hon. Member for South Donegal, there was no question of imputation against them; they had acted in perfect good faith and in a manner which reflected very great credit upon them. It must be remembered, too, that very grave 198 questions were coming before Parliament, and it was most undesirable that at this juncture two important constituencies should be unrepresented. If a Committee were appointed, it might sit for a considerable time, and meanwhile the seats would remain vacant. No doubt the House always took great interest in questions affecting its honour and prerogatives, but in this case there could be no doubt that the action of the hon. Gentleman was perfectly bonâ fide and was based on the advice of the most distinguished counsel. He ventured to think in the circumstances that the Writs should issue, and that the House should not leave two important constituencies like the City of London and Mid Hertfordshire unrepresented at a time of very great importance like the present.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Ordered, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the City of London, in the room of the hon. Alban George Henry Gibbs, who, since his election for the said City, has undertaken a contract, with the Commissioners for executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, for the public service.