HC Deb 01 March 1912 vol 34 cc1690-3

With the very kind indulgence of the House I am going to make a very short personal explanation I desire to explain to the House how it was I did not immediately rise yesterday after the statement of the hon. and learned Member for North Armagh (Mr. Moore). I did not rise for the reason that I anticipated that some Gentleman from the Treasury Bench representing the Irish Office would rise first. I hope that no one who knows me well will think me so deficient in ordinary manfulness as that if I fall into an error and happen to be in the wrong unintentionally that I would not make ample reparation to the utmost of my power. I was wrong in not giving the hon. and learned Gentleman notice. He will take my word for it that it was a mere matter of inadvertence.


I quite accept that.


We are both hard fighters, but I would not take an unfair advantage of him. The hon. and learned Gentleman did me the justice to say that on the hypothesis on which I acted I was right; but the hypothesis was a false hypothesis. He also accused me of not having read or known that the answer to the question had been in the Orders of the Day. I did not know it, and I did not read the proceedings in reference to it, though I was most anxious, and was keeping a keen eye on the hon. Gentleman's question. My reason simply was this, that I could not conceive that when the hon. Gentleman in the face of the House had stated he had postponed the question that the question should appear officially with the answer thereto in the records. What occurred was this, that the Minister in charge, when the hon and learned Gentleman said he postponed the question, actually tore it up. I did not see it in the Orders, and if I had seen it—


It was in the OFFICIAL REPORT.


It was done simply through a mere inadvertence. Of course, everyone is anxious to preserve to the utmost the right of Parliamentary interrogation, whether it is for us or against us. If I had known of it, or seen it, I would have communicated with the hon. Gentleman and told him how he could get the question asked again, and how he could have full and perfect scope for the interrogations that he is so anxious to ask. I hope that this explanation will be accepted, having regard to the seriousness of the charge made, which I likewise am most anxious should be known and investigated, and, though I do not know who the Privy Councillor is, and he is not a friend of mine, I think these charges of corruption should be prosecuted and not run away from. I am very grateful to you, Sir, and to the House, for allowing me to make this explanation. One word more—and it is this—this mistake of the question being on the Papers was a mistake that might happen at any time. The wonder is that such mistakes do not more frequently occur. The regularity of the proceedings of this House is really nothing short of a miracle having regard to all that has to be done. What I would ask is this, I am attacking a very very slight error, and I do not know whether I ought to make a personal request to you, Sir. What I would ask you, Sir, is that you will not as on a former occasion, get up and say, "The responsibility is entirely mine"—I mean the responsibility of the Chair. That places any one who calls attention to mistakes of that kind in a very hateful position. It gave me great personal pain when I found out a small error.


I do not accept any responsibility for this.


As the Irish Office has been called in question perhaps I may say a word. I am sure everybody who heard the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for North Armagh the other day, felt that he had completely vindicated himself absolutely from the charge which was brought against him, and, as the hon. and learned Member (Mr. MacNeill) now frankly admits, on a false hypothesis. The hon. Gentleman withdrew the question, but nevertheless the answer appeared automatically, not on the Votes of this House, but in the OFFICIAL REPORT—in that little book which we find, to our advantage or disadvantage, on our breakfast-tables. That mistake has happened before once or twice during my time, and I am afraid that I cannot honestly assert, although I will try to do my very best, that it will never happen again. I do not think hon. Members are quite aware of the complications of the matter. There are thirty or forty of those questions, and four copies of them are provided—one for my use in this House; another is sent at three o'clock, by request, to the Official Reporter; another set of answers is sent for the use of the Press; and a fourth is provided to the very polite servant of the House who sits behind the Chair, and is able to give those Members who ask questions copies of them when the proceedings are over. What happens is this. Except on Thursdays four things frequently occur. Questions are reached, and asked: they present no difficulty. Questions are reached, as in the case now under consideration, and hon. Members get up and withdraw them. It is then my duty, or the duty of the Minister answering for me, to put those answers on one side. Then there are questions that are not reached and consequently cannot be asked. I hand those to the Clerk at the Table. But he sometimes tells me that in regard to three or four of those questions, the Members who have put them down, seeing that they are not likely to be reached, have come to him, and asked that they should be withdrawn, and the Clerk hands back to me the answers to the questions which have been withdrawn. It then becomes my duty, or the duty of some person acting on my behalf, to run and stop the Official Reporter from proceeding too hastily on the assumption either that these questions have been asked and answered or that hon. Members are quite willing that they should be treated as if they had been asked. I am unable sometimes to do that. I am frequently asked supplementary questions, which we know are sometimes even more carefully prepared beforehand than the original questions, and in the agitation of the moment, not being a very handy man with documents, I sometimes get the papers a little muddled up. But I and those who assist me, including my hon. and unpaid Friend the hon. Member for North Bucks (Sir Harry Verney), will do our best to see that this mistake does not occur again. But I really cannot guarantee that it shall not, human nature being what it is. This is the first time it has happened in regard to a matter of any degree of importance. I am sincerely sorry, and apologise to the hon. learned Member for the mistake. I hope it will not happen again. I will do my best in the matter, but the only way of preventing it would be by the people upstairs not getting our answers until four o'clock.