HC Deb 06 February 1911 vol 21 cc24-30

Resolved, That no Peer of the Realm, except such Peers of Ireland as shall for the time being be actually elected, and shall not have declined to serve, for any county, city, or borough of Great Britain, hath any right to give his vote in the election of any Member to serve in Parliament.

Motion made and Question proposed: "That it is a high infringement of the liberties and privileges of the Commons of the United Kingdom for any Lord of Parliament, or other Peer or Prelate, not being a Peer of Ireland at the time elected, and not having declined to serve for any county, city, or borough of Great Britain, to concern himself in the election of Members to serve for the Commons in Parliament, except only any Peer of Ireland, at such élections in Great Britain respectively where such Peer shall appear as a candidate, or by himself, or any others, be proposed to be elected; or for any Lord Lieutenant or Governor of any county to avail himself of any authority derived from his commission, to influence the election of any Member to serve for the Commons in Parliament."


I apologise for interrupting the business of the House, but as I desire to call attention to a question of Breach of Privilege, and to move a Resolution, it is necessary by the rules of the House that I should do so at the earliest possible moment.


I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to move an Amendment. I gather it is not his desire to do so?




Then I will put the Question.

Question put, and agreed to.


I beg to move:— That it having been represented to this House that Earl Roden did infringe the liberty and privileges of this House by voting in an Election of a Member to represent the South Down Division in the County of Down, that the Committee of Privileges do inquire into the said alleged breach of privilege. The question, Mr. Speaker, that I would direct attention to is the action of a Peer of the Realm, who at the last General Election, and at the preceding General Election, voted in a Parliamentary contest. The Peer in question is Earl Roden, and the constituency for which he voted was South Down, which I have the honour to represent. The circumstances were these: The name of Colonel Jocelyn appeared on the register of voters for last year. On the day preceding the January Election Earl Roden died, and Colonel Jocelyn succeeded to the Peerage. He became Lord Roden as soon as the breath left the body of his predecessor. He at once proceeded to exercise all the privileges of the Peerage, but he also wished to retain also the rights of his old position, and he therefore went down to the polling booth at Newcastle, County Down, and claimed the right of exercising the franchise. He voted as Colonel Jocelyn, although at that time Colonel Jocelyn was dead in the eyes of the law. He was, in fact, Lord Roden, so that he was technically guilty of the corrupt practice of personation. Inasmuch, however, as I could not accuse him of doing anything more heinous than of personating himself I do not propose to press that illegality against him. He was warned by my sub-election agent, Mr. Matthew King, that as a Peer he was not entitled to vote at a Parliamentary Election. He replied that he would vote and take the consequences. I am not, however, concerned with the January Election. Earl Roden might plead that he then voted in ignorance of the law, and without knowledge of the existence of this Sessional Order. He might plead that at that time, not having formally proved his claim to the Peerage, his case was not covered by the Sessional Orders.

He, however, Mr. Speaker, wilfully repeated the offence at the December election, after having been again warned that it was illegal, and after having six months earlier proved before the House of Lords his claim to the Peerage of Roden. It is, therefore, a very flagrant case, for he voted in disregard of repeated warnings. On two distinct occasions he defied and flouted the Sessional Order of this House. He violated the law as well as defied the sessional order. The right of Peers to vote at Parliamentary Elections was, in 1872, conclusively decided in the Court of Common Pleas, in the cases of the Marquess of Salisbury and Earl Beauchamp. In that case the Revising Barrister had struck the names of these two Peers off the list of voters. They appealed. The Court of Common Pleas unanimously held that the Peers had no right to vote, and that they had no right to have their names on the register; and, even if they were on the register, that did not confer on them the right to vote. I have seen it suggested because this Peerage of the Earl of Roden was created before the Act of Union between England and Ireland, and is known as an Irish Peerage, that the holder of it can claim immunity from these regulations. That is not so. In Sir Erskine May's "Parliamentary Practise" (page 654), it is shown clearly that the regulation, having been agreed to in its present form in 1801 and 1802—that is in the two years following the Act of Union—it was intended to apply to Irish Peers and to Bishops not having seats in Parliament.

It may be urged that Earl Roden is not a Member of the House of Lords, and that therefore this Sessional Order does not stand. The Sessional Order is quite clear upon this, and applies to both classes of Peers, both to those who are Members of the House of Lords, and those who are not. There are many precedents upon the point. I shall quote only one. In 1868, in this House, Mr. Whitbread asked Sir William Stirling Maxwell a question with regard to the case of two Bishops who were acting on the Election Committee of one of the candidates for Cambridge University. The point was taken that as one of these Bishops was not a Member of the House of Lords the Sessional Order could not apply. The technicality was brushed aside, and the then Conservative Government formally apologised to this House on behalf of these Bishops, and both of them were compelled to retire from the committee. I need scarcely say that I have not raised this question to-day from any feeling of resentment, either personal or political. As a matter of fact, I am grateful to the half dozen or so of Peers who live in and around my Constituency for their hostility to me during these two elections. Their opposition spells for me votes which would otherwise have been cast in favour of the Unionist candidate. The opposition of these gentlemen was as useful to me as the opposition of the distressed dukes was to the Radicals of this country. But I do think that if we pass Sessional Orders in this House we ought to enforce them. If the Sessional Orders are meant seriously they ought to be enforced, and if they are not meant seriously they ought not to be passed at all. We shall soon be engaged in work of curbing in another place the power of the peers. When the consummation will have been attained I for one shall be glad to see these restrictions removed on the right of the peers to vote. Meantime, do not let this House be forging a Brutum fulmen—do not let us bark unless we mean to bite. In the case of the Duke of Norfolk, it was pointed out that this House did not deal with it because the Duke would decline to recognise the authority of the House. But in the case of Earl Roden, we can bite as well as bark, because he is not a Member of the House of Lords, and therefore cannot claim the privileges of that body. We can bring him to the Bar of this House and deal with him as we think fit. We can deal with him either by inflicting a fine upon him, by passing censure, by the admonition of the Speaker, or, if the House so desires, it can instruct the Attorney-General to proceed against him by indictment. There are several precedents for this latter in the history of the House. I submit that I have established a clear case for an investigation in this matter by the Select Committee on Privileges. It is a flagrant case, because it was wilful, and it was a second offence. This gentleman seems to think that because he is a Lord he is above and beyond the law, and can with immunity defy the Sessional Orders of this House. I ask this House to teach him that the arm of this House is long enough and strong enough to deal with gentlemen who defy the Sessional Orders. This Peer, the Earl of Roden, is one of the self-styled Law and Order Party in Ireland. I must plead for him that in his case the tendency to lawlessness is hereditary. One of his predecessors was removed from the Commission of the Peace by a Conservative Government for inciting to riot. If the Government were to refuse to prosecute a cattle driver in the South or the West of Ireland. Earl Roden would hold up his hands in pious horror, and would, on platforms all over Ulster, denounce the iniquity of Government's inaction. I submit that it is the duty of this House to teach all men whom it may concern, high and lowly, rich and poor, peer and peasant, that they stand upon a common level, and that the laws will be enforced with equal impartiality upon all. If Lord Roden will not apologise, let the Committee of Privileges recommend that he be brought to the Bar of the House, and I think that after a very brief consideration he will see that it will be well to follow the example of the apology offered by a fellow Irish Peer who voted at an Election a few years ago in Ireland. This is no ordinary case. It is the case of a Peer who has twice been guilty of the offence. He has twice not merely violated the common law, but trampled upon the Sessional Orders of this House. Under those circumstances I cannot imagine any man who possesses even the slightest regard for the traditions of this House resisting the motion which I beg now to propose. I beg to move my Resolution.


I beg to second the Motion which has so conclusively and exhaustively been dealt with by my hon. Friend the mover. In consequence, however, of a remark which escaped from my hon. Friend as to a similar case which occurred within very recent date, I venture to ask the indulgence of the House for a very brief moment to refer to that case in a little detail.

I take it that my hon. Friend referred to the case of Lord Atkinson Lord Atkinson, in the General Election of 1906, voted in the St. Stephens Green division of Dublin which I have the honour to represent. His case, I submit to the House was not at all as bad as that brought to its notice by the hon. Member for South Down. Lord Atkinson, as we may assume from the letter which he himself addressed to you, Mr. Speaker, acted quite unwittingly in the matter, and at any rate, had not received his patent of election, and had not, of course, taken his seat in the House of Peers. In the present case Lord Roden's claims to the Peerage were admitted at least six months before the last election, and accordingly he must have known very well even if he had not received the warning which he did receive that he was acting in the very teeth of the Standing Order of the House of Commons. My hon. Friend pointed out that Lord Roden was warned not only once but twice, but warnings are thrown away upon peers. The House will realise from the very elaborate and learned argument addressed to it by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down that this is not a personal issue between a peer and an individual Member of this House, but it is a question of principles, and the Earl of Roden is acting in direct conflict with the Standing Orders. As far as I am aware Lord Roden has not even now at the eleventh hour taken up the attitude which Lord Atkinson took when he addressed a letter to you, Mr. Speaker, offering you the most unqualified apology for what he had unwittingly done. Lord Roden has not acted unwittingly, and he has not apologised, and I think we would be, simply turning this House of Commons into ridicule if these noble peers were not taught the lesson that this House cannot be flouted either in regard to its Sessional Order or in other matters.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I gather, Mr. Speaker, from your having put this question that you are yourself of opinion there has been a prima facie case made out, that the Sessional Order has been infringed. Speaking for myself, if I may venture to do so, I should have thought that some distinction might be drawn between this Sessional Order and the other, and, indeed, almost all the others. In almost all the others a violation of the order is described as being in itself an infringement of the privileges of this House, whereas the Sessional Order here in question contains in itself a negation of the right of peers to vote in the election of a Member of Parliament, or, in other words, it is merely a declaration of the common law; but it is a Sessional Order of this House, and so long as the House chooses, Session after Session, to pass it, we must assume that the House intends that some effect should be given to it, and that it forms part of our settled procedure. I think there would be a great deal to be said for doing, in this case, what we did last year in another case, getting rid of this, together with some other incumbrances that some of our Sessional Orders present. But the Sessional Orders being as they are, and a primâ facie case of violation having been made out, I do not see how we are to avoid following our ordinary procedure and referring this question to the Committee of Privileges to see whether or not the allegations made are well founded in fact. I should not myself be sorry if the result of such an inquiry were to convince both the Committee and the House that it is unnecessary to go on renewing, Session after Session, Orders of this kind. But that is a matter for subsequent consideration. As this matter stands I do not feel I could resist the Motion which my hon. Friend has made.


I do not think that there was any choice before the Prime Minister but to recommend the House to take the course which it has recommended to take. The whole matter seems to me rather trivial. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] At all events, I could have wished that every other person who had been guilty of personation at the General Election had only personated himself—for that is the offence ascribed to the Noble Lord by the hon. Member. I do not rise in opposition, but rather wish to support the Prime Minister in the course he has proposed. The only question I will put is this: I think he has wisely hinted that, in his opinion, the time has come when we might with advantage carry further the operation which we began last session, which was that of revising and bringing into harmony with modern ideas and modern practice the series of rather antiquated Standing Orders with which Session after Session we begin our proceedings. I do not know whether it would be possible so to amend the Motion now before the House as to enable the Committee of Privileges to take into consideration not merely the individual case of Lord Roden but the wider proposition which the Prime Minister suggested would be desirable. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no."] Well, of course, it is a suggestion which I throw out for the Prime Minister's consideration primarily. I do not know whether it would be practical to make the alteration now, but I think it would be a pity to have two inquiries—one into, the individual case of Lord Roden and another into the wider issues suggested to the Prime Minister and to many others who heard the hon. Member.


I shall respectfully consider the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but I am not sure that the Committee of Privileges would be the best body to undertake such an inquiry; but I certainly think it would not be wise to complicate the present matter.

Question put, and agreed to.