HC Deb 16 February 1914 vol 58 cc729-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Illingworth.]


I should like to call the attention of the House to the re- cent vagaries of one or two of His Majesty's Ministers. There is a kind of electoral bribery which has been going on for some time past, and it is rather desirable that this House should have a opportunity of expressing an opinion whether it agrees with me or not. I am not, of course, going to mention the case which was referred to this afternoon—the case of the Lord Advocate—for that has been disposed of, and handsomely disposed of, by the apology tendered by the Prime Minister. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will equally handsomely apologise for the action of Mr. Masterman. There are many cases I would like to call attention to. It began in 1908 at Dundee in an announcement affecting the Sugar Duties. It went on in Cleveland, where the present President of the Board of Trade produced very opportunely a telegram stating that a new Bill was going to be introduced. I well remember that during the Budget Debates in 1909 it was stated that there was to be a concession to small-holders in Derbyshire. Then there was a concession with regard to the outworkers of Yeovil. All this is going on in exactly the same way with regard to the pending by-elections. I do not complain for one moment of the concessions. We like the concessions, but we would like them to be made honestly. There are two by-elections pending at the present moment in which this curious kind of concession is taking place. Only recently Lord Lincolnshire, speaking at Wycombe, in South Bucks, said there was a real grievance, inasmuch as small-holding tenants had not only to pay the rent, but to contribute to the Sinking Fund. I agree that there is a grievance. Lord Lincolnshire said that he wrote to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer—it is always the Chancellor of the Exchequer to whom everybody writes when they want an electoral bribe—asking whether he might state at that meeting of the Land and Housing Council that after June of next year—a long ahead bribe—if the Liberal Government was in power, they would bring in another Land Bill to remove that grievance.


He opposed it in the House of Lords.


Everybody knows that Lord Camperdown brought in a Bill to effect this very purpose, and that Lord Lincolnshire, on behalf of the Government, opposed it. At that moment there was a by-election pending. Lord Lincolnshire goes on to say:— In his request to the Chancellor of the Exchequer he hoped this charge would be removed from that worthy body of men, that hard-working body of people of whom England might well be proud, and just before he came into the hall he had put in his hand a message as follows: 'On His Majesty's Service'"— the Chancellor's telegrams are always on His Majesty's Service— handed in at Whitehall, and stating 'Lord Lincolnshire. High Wycombe. Yes, Lloyd George.' I suppose that that is the common form of the Treasury. Whenever anybody sends a telegram during a by-election they send a, reply, "On His Majesty's Service. Yes, Lloyd George." They hope that it will effect their purpose in regard to the by-election. That is obviously a very gross attempt on the part of His Majesty's Ministers to allow concessions which the Government opposed last year in order to influence by-elections. I come now to the by-election which was the subject of discussion this afternoon—the by-election at Bethnal Green. Mr. Masterman, on Friday night, according to the "Daily News," said:— We are going to launch a scheme under the Insurance Amendment Act, dealing with casual labour at the docks"'— A most excellent idea, and a scheme which might have been launched some time ago— This scheme is now being considered by the masters and leaders of the trade unions concerned. As soon as they have made up their minds about it, it will come into effect. If the masters and men accept it, it will be introduced as a voluntary scheme; if not, it goes before an arbitrator. I presume if the arbitrator decides it will become compulsory. We prepared it during the Autumn. The Government have had the whole autumn and the winter, when casual labour is in its most anxious condition down at the docks, during which they could have said: "We have prepared a scheme that will alleviate the hardship existing with regard to dock labourers." But they keep this scheme bottled up and do not tell these unfortunate men anything about it until a member of the Cabinet is fighting for his life at Bethnal Green. The "Westminster Gazette" says:— No doubt the scheme will give great satisfaction in these constituencies. That is the only reason for this scheme. It is an electoral bribe. I am not at all sure that it is not a fraudulent bribe, because the scheme is not in existence at all. It is by no means certain that the scheme will be in existence. It is before the masters and the men at the present time for their consideration. They may not agree to it. We have schemes put forward by a Cabinet Minister which may prove to be no scheme at all, in order to influence votes. The first is bad enough, but the second is worse. The Prime Minister met another point exceedingly fairly this afternoon, and I want the Chancellor of the Exchequer to meet me equally fairly this evening. I want him to say to us in reference to this scheme, whether it is a good scheme or a bad scheme—we want it carried just as much as he does; we are just as keen on behalf of the casual labourers as he—that they are not to go down to the electors of a constituency and bribe them at the moment of a contest by putting before them a scheme which may not come to pass. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been the leader in these electoral bribes. He has now the opportunity to justify himself.

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Lloyd George)

I think it requires a good deal of audacity for an hon. Member on the other side of the House to talk about bribes in connection with insurance. There have been a few elections recently in Scotland and elsewhere. There has not been a single election where there were not promises that amounted to at least £10,000,000 a year upon the taxes of this country as electoral bribes—[Interruption.] Clearly you can bribe if you are not in office. There was also a promise of voluntary insurance, although they never meant to put their promises into operation. The hon. Member has been good enough to refer to something that I said, and I think, at any rate, he might have given me notice or called my attention to it. He read my telegram to High Wycombe. He seems to suggest that this is the first time I ever made that statement. On the contrary, when unfolding my scheme with regard to land weeks ago, I made that statement. I never knew that an election was in contemplation at High Wycombe, and when the hon. Gentleman says that on behalf of the Government I had made that statement merely to influence the election, he is saying something which is not accurate.


Why did Lord Lincolnshire write about it?


My own recollection is that I made the statement to my Constituents in a speech I delivered at the end of last year. [Interruption.] When a charge of bribery is brought against an absent Member of the Government at least hon. Members should listen to the reply to it. I come now to what is much more important, the charge against a Member who is not here—[An HON. MEMBER; "He is not a Member"]—a Member of the Government, who is not here to reply. The charge is that for the first time in order to influence an election in his constituency he made a statement on behalf of the Government. It was never made before by him or by anybody else. There is not a shadow of truth in the statement. What is much worse, it is a charge brought against an absent man. If the hon. Gentleman had devoted as much time as he has devoted to the preparation of his speech in looking up the Debate of July 15th last he would have understood that it was untrue. There were complaints about casual labour in the East End of London. The men said when they were only working a day they had to pay the fourpence; and the second charge was that because they were afraid that they would not be employed they not only paid their own but the employer's contribution as well. Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that this is the first time that my right hon. Friend talked about this matter? On the 15th July my right hon. Friend (Mr. Masterman) used these words relevant to the charge. He first called attention to the grievances, and said:— It is to provide such schemes as that for the London docks that. Clause 7 is introduced as a result of the experience of schemes which have already been adopted at Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and other places by voluntary effort between employers and employed."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th July, col. 1111, Vol. LV.] In July, standing at this Table, he said that this Clause was introduced to provide this scheme, which the hon. Member calls an electoral bribe. Let me come to what my right hon. Friend said upon this subject in the Committee upstairs:— Mr. Masterman: We know that the employers in East London are very anxious to try and see if some such scheme "— That is this scheme— can be obtained, So are the employed. We shall certainly consult both employers and employed, and we hope at least that some scheme may be made to deal with a problem of extraordinary difficulty That was on 24th July, 1913. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Nothing done since."] My right hon. Friend has been addressing meetings in his constituency during the autumn, and so have all the East London Members on both sides. They all referred to this scheme without exception. I telephoned to Mr. Masterman immediately after the statement made to-day, and he said to me that in almost every speech which he delivered he referred to this case, because it was a grievance that particularly affected his constituents. That was during the whole of the autumn months. What happened? In September the Insurance Commissioners put themselves into communication with the employers and employed and every employer in the docks of London. They discussed the whole question of the scheme. The right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, who had no knowledge of the facts, said the scheme was not in existence. It was, and submitted and sent in December for preliminary discus- sions by employers and employed, of the representatives of both parties, and they are discussing it at the present moment. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that when you are dealing with the greatest seaport in the world, you cannot put a larger scheme of this kind through in a few weeks. Unless I am mistaken, it took years for the Port of Liverpool to do so, which is a much simpler business than the Port of London. Here is a scheme which has been in hand since the end of last year, and the hon. Gentleman comes down and brings a charge of corruption against an absent Member of the Government, without even taking the trouble to inquire. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] If he had inquired of any great employers in the Port of London he would have known that it was untrue. If he had inquired of any trade union leader dealing with the docks he would have known that it was untrue. Why did he not do it? He thought it was worth while bringing a charge of this kind to influence an election without taking the trouble to find out the facts. What answer did my right hon. Friend Mr. Masterman give at the meeting? My hon. Friend the Member for Hoxton (Dr. Addison) was present. A question was put to Mr. Masterman, and he gave an answer which was strictly true. He gave an answer which was read out that the scheme had already been prepared, and had been submitted to the leaders of the employers and employed—an answer which was given at the meetings repeatedly held before the election. Why is he challenged upon that ground? The hon. Member (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) asked me, on behalf of Mr. Masterman, to express regret. I say that it is clue from him to express regret to Mr. Masterman. [Interruption.]


The Chancellor of the Exchequer has not answered or dealt—

It being half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven O'clock