HC Deb 21 April 1913 vol 52 cc61-4

I beg to move, "That Sir Stuart Samuel has vacted his Seat as Member for the Tower Hamlets (Whitechapel)." The Prime Minister, in view of his absence on urgent public business, has asked me to move this Motion. With the permission of the House, may I in two or three sentences remind hon. Members of how this matter stands? I think it will be found that this Motion is, in the circumstances, in accordance with precedent on the matter, and that it will be found to be uncontroversial. The House will remember that a Select Committee was appointed, in accordance with our practice in all cases of doubt, to investigate whether or not this Gentleman had vacated his seat, but that Select Committee reported to the House that, in view of the difficulty of some of the legal questions involved, they would recommend that resort be had to the Judicial Committee to solve and to determine the question. That course, though in a high degree unusual—because this House has always been jealous to preserve its own constitutional right to determine for itself the incapacities of those who have been duly elected—that unusual course was taken and the Judicial Committee has delivered its decision. I take leave to read the last sentence of the decision, so that the House can judge of the appropriateness of our present Motion. The Judicial Committee reported:— Under these circumstances, though no suggestion has been made of any improper motive, and though the construction placed upon the statutes by Sir Stuart Samuel finds some countenance in former proceedings before Committees of the House of Commons, their Lordships are obliged to answer the question of law referred to them as follows: They will humbly advise His Majesty that by reason of the facts which have been reported by the above-named Select Committee of the House of Commons, the said Sir Stuart Samuel was disabled from sitting and voting in the House. The Select Committee found no great difficulty in ascertaining the facts, and those facts have been pronounced upon on matters of law by a very high authority to whose judgment we in all parts of the House will be most willing to bow. Under those circumstances the usual practice appears to be for this Motion to be formally moved. I can find at least two precedents when a matter has been referred to a Select Committee and the House thought it right to declare the seat vacated, and in order that we may continue that tradition I now move this Motion, and after adoption it will be possible for the new Writ forthwith to be moved.


I think the speech to which we have just listened must present in the minds of every hon. Member who listened to the previous Debate on this subject, one of the most remarkable contrasts ever seen in the House of Commons. At that time the Government proposed to refer this matter to a Select Committee.


At what time?


When the matter was debated in this House on a Friday afternoon. We, on these benches, pointed out that as admittedly this was a question of law we could not imagine a more improper tribunal to settle such a question than a Select Committee of this House formed on ordinary party lines. What was the answer of the Government? The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who represented the Government on that occasion, said, "What we want specially is haste; there must be no delay." What has happened? The Government set up their Committee; they spent, I do not know how long in discussing the subject; and then they came unanimously to the conclusion that the Committee was not a proper body to deal with the question, and that they should do what we suggested at the outset, they ought to do, and submit the matter to a legal tribunal. What has been the effect? The effect has been that the Government have disfranchised this constituency for at least two or three months without there being the smallest necessity for so doing. I do not think it is at all surprising under these circumstances that the Solicitor-General has not made a lengthy speech on the subject.

There is something else which I feel bound to notice. It seems to me that the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets Division ought at once, when the question arose, to have submitted himself to the electorate. At the time that this matter was first discussed the Attorney-General admitted that the question was open to grave doubt. But the doubt was purely technical. There was no doubt whatever that the offence against which the Statute was intended to guard had in effect been committed. Under these circumstances I feel bound to say that in my judgment the proper course for the hon. Member to have taken was at once to have submitted himself to the electorate and received their permission before he again sat in the House of Commons. He had precedent to guide him. A case exactly similar arose in 1904, towards the end of the last Government. The case was similar in every respect. The question was so doubtful that the hon. Member for South Donegal (Mr. Swift MacNeill) actually objected to the vacation of the seat on the

ground that there was a doubt in connection with the matter. That case formed a precedent which one would have thought would naturally have been followed in similar circumstances. It may be said that the hon. Member—and I suppose he did—consulted the Government, and acted on their advice. Yes, but Mr. Gibbs together with his brother, to my knowledge, consulted the Government on the previous occasion, and although it was a question on which there was at least grave doubt, the Government advised him to take the course which would set that doubt at rest and to appeal to his Constituents. I cannot understand why a similar course was not adopted in this case. I think it represents a change of view, and not a desirable change, which has taken place in the interval as to what is the proper Parliamentary procedure. Of course, we shall not vote against the Motion which has now been made, but I must say that I do not think the Government are to be congratulated either on the substance of the Motion or the method which they have adopted in this case.

New Writ for the Borough of Tower Hamlets (Whitechapel Division), in the room of Sir Stuart Montagu Samuel, Baronet, who, since his election for the said Borough, has undertaken a contract with the Secretary of State for India for the public service.—[Mr. Illingworth.]