HC Deb 26 November 1906 vol 165 cc1254-8
* MR. RIDSDALE (Brighton)

I desire to call the attention of the House to a question of privilege. In the "Political Notes" in The Times to-day there appears a letter, signed by sixteen electors of the Thanet Division, which constitutes undoubtedly a most gross libel upon an hon. Member of this House: It seems to me that it is entirely contrary to the public interest and to the interests and dignity of this House that such a strongly worded libel as that should be allowed to pass unnoticed. I am aware that there are difficulties about raising a question of privilege, and I will read a short extract from "May" on that point— And although privilege cannot be claimed for a Motion containing imputations upon the character of a Member which are not immediately connected with his conduct in Parliament, yet owing to attendant circumstances these Motions occasionally have been treated as privilege Motions. For instance, when on 22nd July, 1861, a Motion was proposed concerning the conduct of a Member in connection with a joint stock company, such conduct being wholly unconnected with matters arising in the House, the Speaker said it was doubtful whether the Motion was properly a matter of privilege, but as it affected the character of a Member it could be proceeded with if it were the pleasure of the House. In an ordinary case I quite agree it would probably be better for this House to let the matter pass without notice. But this letter is of so strong a nature —and certain of its particulars are fresh since the election of the hon. Member to the House—that I think it is essential, having due respect to the dignity of this House and its influence on the country at large, that the matter should be dealt with at once. I beg to move, "That the questions raised in the letter addressed to Mr. Speaker and published in the 'Political Notes' of The Times to-day be referred to the Committee on Privileges for their report." I ask that the letter upon which my Motion is based be read by the Clerk at the Table.


I think it would, perhaps, be more convenient if the hon. Member would point out the particular paragraphs to which he takes exception. It would be unusual to call upon the Clerk at the Table to read an article if the House does not eventually take proceedings upon it. Perhaps the hon. Member will read the particular paragraphs to which he objects.


I think the letter as a whole really calls for the attention of the House more than extracts from it. [Cries of "Read the letter."] I will read it all— We, the undersigned electors of Thanet, deeply sensible of the high traditions of the House of Commons and of the respect due to you as the Speaker who presides over that great Assembly, think it right most humbly to bring to your notice certain grave matters which affect the character of Mr. H. H. Marks, the Parliamentary representative of Thanet, and his fitness to occupy that position. Mr. Marks is the founder, principal proprietor, and editor of the Financial Sews, and we desire to call your attention to the following legal proceedings:—'Regina on the prosecution of H. H. Marks v. Butterfield,' tried at the Central Criminal Court, 1890; 'Andrews v. Mockford,' 1895, 1 Q.B., 372 (C.A.); 'Re E. T. Hooley,' examination in bankruptcy, November and December, 1898; 'Re London and Globe Finance Corporation,' examination by the Senior Official Receiver, January, 1902, and the Official Receiver's report, February 24, 1906; 'Head v. Glenesk,' May 28, 1903; 'W. T. Tanqueray-Todd,' examination in bankruptcy, November, 1905; ' Rex v. Young and Jonas,' Central Criminal Court, October, 1906. We enclose copies of Daily News,. September 26, 1904, and Thanet Times, November 21, 1906. These two articles contain a summary of the proceedings in some of the eases alluded to, in so far as the evidence affects Mr. Marks. We have carefully compared these articles with the verbatim or recognised reports of the trials and find the extracts correctly made. We therefore enclose the copies as a convenient method of putting salient facts before you. We venture with all respect to ask you to note that the foregoing cases prove that' Mr. Marks in 1890 brought an action for criminal libel, which raised in the fullest way two distinct charges of the gravest kind, one upon his private character and the other upon his financial integrity. Both charges were found to be true and published for the public benefit, and Mr. Marks has never since submitted his character to the examination of a jury. In substance the charge against Mr. Marks's financial integrity, which was proved in Court and found to be true, was that of promoting a company under discreditable circumstances, and while concealing his own interest in it, using his paper, the Financial News, which posed as giving independent advice, to puff his own. worthless promotion. The evidence given in the subsequent cases (the last occurred last month); and which we have specified, shows Mr. Marks either directly or through his newspaper accepting money as a bribe from promoters (more than one of whom have been sentenced to penal servitude) in order to do the same for their promotions. We conceive that a man who so uses a newspaper is guilty of gross dishonesty, and upon that point we would most respectfully call your attention to the words of Mr. Justice Bigham, who, upon hearing some of the evidence to which we have referred you, is reported as describing Mr. Marks as 'a scoundrel on his own admission' and a 'dishonest rogue.' You, Sir, will notice that the Daily News article was published in September, 1904, and we submit to you further extracts from the Press to show you that serious attacks have been made upon Mr. Marks and remain unanswered, although he might have taken legal proceedings. We humbly submit that a person of this notorious character cannot continue a Member of Parliament without impairing the confidence of the public in the honour and purity of the House of Commons itself. It is obvious that such a Member cannot act in any business involving public interests such as the business of a Private Bill Committee without arousing reasonable misgiving. Upon these grounds, Sir, we desire to represent to you, as the guardian of the honour and good name of the House of Commons,, and through you to the House itself, that Mr. Marks is unfit to be a member of the House, and especially, being tainted in character and reasonably to be suspected of corruption, that he could not serve upon a Committee upon a Private Bill or otherwise act where money interests were involved without grave scandal to the honour of the House and serious injury to the public interest. Having read the letter I now leave it in your hands.


In my opinion, no breach of privilege has been committed in this case, because there is no charge against the hon. Member of having done anything in his capacity as a Member of this House and concerned with the transactions of this House. The charges which have been made are grave, but they do not concern the hon. Member as a Member of this House. That seems to me, looking back to the precedents, to be the rule which must be deduced in these cases. The hon. Member quoted a case in 1861. I think since then the House has very wisely narrowed rather than extended the question of breach of privilege. I am quite sure I am on sound ground in what I am saying, but, in order that the House may be quite convinced of the matter, I would like to quote two cases which have occurred—in the time of Mr. Speaker Peel and also in the time of my immediate predecessor. In the former case, the late Sir Wilfrid Lawson, on 22nd February, 1887, raised a question of breach of privilege where a newspaper had attacked a certain section of this House, and used some very strong language in regard to the Members comprising that section. Mr. Speaker Peel then said— It has been the practice of this House to restrain privilege under great limitations and conditions. The rule is that, when imputations are made, in order to raise a ease of privilege the imputations must refer to the action of hon. Members in the discharge of their duties in the actual transaction of the business of this House; and, though I quite understand the hon. Baronet's having brought this matter to my notice, I cannot rule that this is a case of privilege. Mr. Speaker Gully, on 17th March, 1896: when his attention was called to a violent attack which was made upon the hon. Member for Middlesbrough by the St. James's Gazette, used these words— In order to constitute a ease of privilege there must be some attack on an hon. Member in respect of his conduct as a Member of the House. In the present instance there is a violent attack no doubt made on the character of the hon. Member in respect of transactions outside this House altogether. Therefore I do not see that it constitutes a case of privilege, nor do I think the fact that the writer of the article draws or states an inference that if those charges were true then the hon. Member against whom they are directed would not be fit to sit in the House—I do not think that inference merely at the end of the attack, which is entirely an attack on the hon. Member in respect of matters outside the House, would make that a breach of privilege which would not otherwise be so. I think, therefore, the hon. Member cannot treat this as a breach of privilege. The last case quoted seems to be a case exactly in point. Therefore I follow the rule of my predecessors in saying no question of breach of privilege has arisen.

MR. H. H. MARKS (Kent, Thanet)

Mr. Speaker, pursuant to private notice which I gave you to-day at the opening of the sitting, I desire to make a personal explanation. The letter addressed to you purporting to be signed by sixteen of my constituents, which has been published in The Times this morning, as I understand without your authority, contains charges against my personal character. These identical charges have already been made by these persons in my constituency during the past three years. The majority of the electors in the constituency have shown their opinion of those charges by twice, returning me to this House. The courtesy with which I have been received in this House, and the reception accorded to me elsewhere politically, together with the fact that I enjoy the personal friendship of many of its Members, has encouraged me in the belief that the falsity and the malice of those assertions, which are known to me and to those who make them, have also been obvious to those whose opinion I value. The issue raised has already been twice decided in my favour by my constituents, on the last occasion by a majority of nearly 4,000 votes, and in the proportion of six to one against a candidate selected and supported against me, on the ground of these very charges, by the persons who have again given them publicity. But, the matter having now been brought directly before the House, it is my intention to take such line of action as shall, after careful consultation with my friends, appear to them and to me to be most consistent with my own honour and with the honour of the House.