HC Deb 01 April 1913 vol 51 cc231-5

I am desired to submit to you, and to the House, a question of privilege which I mentioned yesterday, when, to the very great regret of every Member of this House, you were unable to occupy the Chair, and the Deputy-Speaker assured me that I should not lose my right to bring it forward by deferring it until you should be in your place. The matter which I wish to submit to the House is the issue of a paper called the "Irish News," which was published on Friday last, and as it was only received in London on Saturday, yesterday was the first opportunity which any Member of the House could have of bringing the matter before the House. The paragraph to which I desire to call attention is as follows:— Liberals have noted for some time past with rather pained feelings that the Speaker, while successfully preserving the outward appearance of impartiality, is often glad to seize upon an opportunity of showing that he was a strong political partisan before he was elected Speaker by the Tories—and re-elected by the Home Rulers. Mr. Lowther is the personification of prudence; but now and then, as in the case of his reply to the questions regarding Mr. Whitley's action put to him from the Opposition Benches yesterday, he manages to remind the House that he was once a Tory representative of a Tory constituency. On the 19th of December last, only three months ago, a case, similar in some respects, was brought to the attention of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Lord Robert Cecil), and on that occasion you, Sir, expressed the opinion that to dismiss it without further comment was probably the right way of dealing with the matter; and I think that the weighty and dignified words which were addressed to the House on that occasion by the Prime Minister endorsing your opinion were felt by the House to be a completely adequate treatment of the question. I think that the House will recognise that in questions of this sort it is very natural, and indeed almost inevitable, that the occupant of the Chair, regarding it, to some extent, as a personal matter, should recommend the House to treat it with the contempt which he naturally feels that it deserves and not to award to it the dignity of any more drastic treatment, and I am not prepared to say that on most occasions that is not the proper course; and, of course, it is not for me to make any suggestion as to the proper mode of treating this matter, and it is not my intention to make any such suggestion. I am not going further than to call the attention of the House to the article in question, but I will call the attention of the Prime Minister to the fact that this offence, if it be an offence, occurs at an interval of only three months after that to which I have alluded with which you dealt in the manner that I have described. But there is this distinction between the two cases. The article to which my Noble Friend the Member for Hitchin called attention in December only purported to be the opinion of some obscure provincial journalist writing about the proceedings of the House of Commons, while the paragraph which I have read is in a column of the paper headed, "London Letter: From our own correspondent," which is dated, "London, Friday morning." Consequently this paragraph was written by a gentleman who has the privilege of access to the Galleries and Lobbies of this House, a privilege which he receives, I understand, by the indulgence of the House through the medium of the Speaker himself, and therefore it is natural to assume that those who read his words in the country will naturally think that he speaks with special authority, and that having access to Members of this House he is enabled to glean the opinions which they hold and to record these opinions for the benefit of the readers of his newspaper. I, of course, assume that this writer is giving a completely untruthful account of the opinions held by Members of the party opposite, but the House will observe that the paragraph begins "Liberals have noted for some time past with rather pained feelings." Consequently the article is not a mere expression of individual opinion, but it purports to give the opinion of the Liberal party. Therefore it appears to me to pass a slur upon Members opposite which they will be very glad to repudiate, and I am quite certain that they will be grateful to me for giving them an opportunity of dissociating themselves entirely from those things which are put into their mouths, so to speak, by this gentleman. I have said it is not for me to make any suggestion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I have already said I am not going to make any suggestion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I have not done so, and I am very glad indeed to have so completely the assent of hon. Members. Having called the attention of the House to the paragraph and pointed out the characteristics which appear to me to distinguish it, I leave the matter, of course, entirely in the hands of Mr. Speaker and the Leaders of the House.


I rise not for the purpose of complaining that the hon. Gentleman has thought fit to come forward as the champion of the dignity of this House, but in order to call attention to two other cases of breach of privilege arising out of the same incident. They consist of statements made by two Unionist newspapers published in the same city of Belfast, and upon the same date as the newspaper quoted by the hon. Member who has just spoken. The two extracts are, one from the London letter of the "Belfast Northern Whig," which is partly owned and controlled by Unionist Members of this House, and the other is from the editorial notes in the "Belfast Echo"—both making disgraceful attacks upon the Chairman of Committees of this House. The paragraph in the "Belfast Echo" refers to "the unprecedented, partisan, and disgraceful action of the Chairman of Committees," whilst the paragraph in the "Belfast Northern Whig" endorses the conduct of the hon. and learned Member for North Armagh. It contains the report of a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Members, at which they passed a resolution endorsing the conduct of the hon. and learned Member for North Armagh in defying the authority of the Chair. The extract is from the "Belfast Northern Whig" of the 28th March, the same date as quoted by the hon. Member. The paragraph proceeds:— Mr. Moore's protest was also made against the conduct of the Chairman in contradicting his own ruling in such circumstances as to make it appear that he meant to help the Government and their friends to make time for bringing up their men to vote; but it would not be in accordance with Parliamentary etiquette that a meeting of Members should refer to this matter. …. They feel that they cannot now be sure of the impartial attitude of the Chairman in Committee where the interests of the Government are concerned, and they were saying yesterday among themselves that, while Mr. Whitley saved the Government, he ruined his Parliamentary career. The names of those present at the meeting were Sir Edward Carson (in the chair), Mr. J. H. Campbell, Captain Craig, Captain O'Neill, Mr. MacCaw, Major M'Calmont, Mr. Mitchell-Thomson, Mr. Horner, Mr. P. Newman (Enfield), Mr. Kerr-Smiley, and Sir John Lonsdale (honorary secretary). I wish to ask you, Sir, whether, if the passage read by the hon. Member from the "Irish News" be a breach of privilege, the words I have quoted from the "Belfast Northern Whig," and the "Belfast Echo," do not constitute a much graver offence?


I would respectfully suggest to the House that I need not answer the questions which have been put to me as to whether these respective articles are or are not breaches of privileges. It may be that they are, it may be that they are not. I would venture humbly to suggest to the House that the matter should not be carried any further. Of course, in the exercise of our duty in the Chair and at the Table, the Chairman of Ways and Means and myself, are bound to incur a considerable amount of criticism, and when we accept those offices we expect to receive criticism; but as long as we have the confidence of Members of this House, I think we can altogether neglect criticisms which appear even in London letters. (I am not so sure as the hon. Member seems to be, that those London letters always are written in London). At all events, I have had an opportunity of consulting the Chairman of Ways and Means, and he is of exactly the same opinion as myself, that is, respectfully to submit to the House that it is undesirable that this matter should be carried further.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I am sure, Sir, that in the language which you have used you have given expression, as you always do, to the unanimous feeling of the House in regard to matters of this kind. The House, if I may say so, Sir, respectfully agrees with you that suggestion and aspersions of this kind are totally unworthy of serious notice. We have the utmost confidence, on both sides and in all quarters, in the impartiality of the Chair and in the Chairman of Ways and Means, and we esteem ourselves fortunate in having such zealous and vigilant, custodians of the privileges of the House of Commons.


I only rise, Sir, for the purpose of saying that I respectfully agree with every word which fell from you, and I endorse all that has been said by the Prime Minister. I think with you, Sir, and with him, that cases of this kind should be very rarely, if ever, dealt with by the House, and I do not think that either of these cases is an occasion of the kind.


On a point of Order, Sir. I wish to call attention to the fact that the hon. Member below the Gangway was not, as I submit, in order in bringing forward the examples that he did bring forward, because he did not protect his right yesterday, which was his earliest opportunity. It would have been quite easy to have objected when he brought forward those cases, but I do not think anyone in our party had the slightest desire to do so. I certainly had no wish to deprive the House of the opportunity of hearing the cases which he brought forward. I only wish to mention the matter because it might become one of importance in the future, and I thought it possible that it might have escaped your attention that the hon. Gentleman did not bring forward those examples yesterday, as he might have done, and evidently it only occurred to him to do so after he heard what I stated.


The hon. Member gave me notice yesterday that he would take the earliest opportunity of bringing those cases forward.