§ Whereupon, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 3rd February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."1437
§ Mr. HOGGE
The Under-Secretary of State for War is cognisant of the point to which I have already referred in the House, namely, as to the affairs of the Empire Battalion Committee. I am not now going over the arguments or the facts which were disclosed on a previous occasion, but I would like to remind my right hon. Friend that, as a result of that discussion in the House, he replied to me on the 11th March last as follows:—My hon. Friend is very anxious to pin me down to a definite form of inquiry. I say it is quite within the competence of the War Office to order such an inquiry. I think very likely that may be the course we shall adopt, but I ask my hon. Friend and the House to have confidence in us, and to believe that we shall not burke an inquiry, but that we shall have an inquiry which will be the most suitable and the most certain to bring out all the facts, and satisfy the feeling of disquietude which may be, and probably is, in the public mind as to the transactions that have taken place."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th March. 1915, col. 1630, Vol. LXX.]My right hon. Friend has gone further than he promised on that occasion, and has set up a more specific Court of Inquiry. When the Court met for the first time this morning, in the Westminster County Building, adjacent to our own House of Commons, I attended, because it was a Court open to the public, and in order to see what line the Court was going to take. The proceedings opened, as is usual in those circumstances, by those who are members of the Court asking those who wished to appear to express their desire to do so. After a long list of counsel and solicitors had made application to appear for all kinds of people, I made application on behalf of myself to appear at this Court of Inquiry. The reason I did so is surely obvious to everybody in this House. It was I who made the only charges that have been made on which this Court of Inquiry is based. Had the charges I made in this House not been made, and they were made specifically, there would have been no Court of Inquiry. How you can hold an inquiry into those charges and not allow me, at any rate, to have an interest in that inquiry, passes my comprehension. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, in his own peculiarly humorous way, this afternoon suggested that I had an overwhelming ambition to appear as a witness in front of this Court of Inquiry. I can assure him I have no such ambition. It is a very wearisome proceeding to sit day in and day out at a Court of this kind, and, as an hon. Friend here says, it is dreadful work. I have no desire to do it, and I think I can say that relating to this and other questions with regard to the War Office, I have been as accommodating to 1438 the right hon. Gentleman as any Member of this House could well be. He may take it from me I have no overwhelming desire to appear before this Court as a witness unless it is necessary that my evidence should be called. But here is a Court which is constituted to meet, among other charges, certain charges which I made on the floor of this House, and there may be put into the witness box during the course of the inquiry, gentlemen against whom those charges were made. If they are going to clear themselves from those charges it is perfectly evident that they must bring rebutting evidence to the charges I made. That would involve myself, and is it possible I am to be put into the position of not being able to cross-examine those witnesses to re-establish the charges I made in this House?
I put it to my right hon. Friend he is, after all, superior to this Court of Inquiry, just as the House of Commons is superior to me and the rest of those who form its membership, and I put it to the other Members of the House interested in these questions if Members of the House of Commons in future are to be precluded by any system of machinery from following up or making good the charges that they make on the floor of the House of Commons, then what earthly use is there in being a Member of Parliament, or of having the privilege of putting these matters in front of the public. I did not take this matter up because I wanted particularly to take it up, but because it was known to me on evidence brought to my notice that certain men were swindling: the nation of the nation's money. I said so deliberately here in the House of Commons, and I think that the evidence I gave them was sufficient to induce the War Office to grant an inquiry. I submit that, when that Court is sitting, to be told in the Court that you, who make the charges, practically have no business to be there, that you can stop as an interested spectator if you like, but it is none of your business—that passes my comprehension, and I do not know what answer my right hon. Friend will make. I only want to say that if I am not to be given the right to watch the proceedings in that Court, and to cross-examine witnesses in any instances that affect the charges I have made, I shall not trouble to attend the Court. I shall wait until all its evidence is taken and reported to this House, and then when opportunities are afforded on the Estimates and otherwise I shall have to raise the whole question over- 1439 again here—a thing I really do not want to do. I do not want that necessity thrust upon me, because I am very strongly of opinion that this Court is sufficiently strong to come to a decision—a decision which I am perfectly ready to accept if the Court is prepared to accept all the evidence. That there is an attempt to get at the facts I am ready to acknowledge from the terms of reference, of which I had no knowledge until I heard them read out in Court this morning. They were promised to me, but they never reached me. I do not blame the right hon. Gentleman or make any point of that. I merely state the fact. Apparently some attempt is being made to get at other facts than those to which I referred, because there are terms in the reference to which I did not allude in my speech in the House of Commons. I want my right hon. Friend to make it perfectly clear that I am entitled to see that my interests in this matter are protected. Otherwise we must postpone the further consideration of the matter until the Court has done its work.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Tennant)
I am sure we are very much indebted to my hon. Friend For the part which he has taken in the pursuit of justice, in calling the notice of Parliament to matters which appeared to him irregular, if not worse, and which have led to the Court of Inquiry to which he has alluded. I take it that my hon. Friend has no complaint to make against the War Department for having established the Court?
§ Mr. TENNANT
That I understand. I also take it that my hon. Friend makes no complaint of the character of the Court?
§ Mr. TENNANT
So far, good. With regard to all military Courts of Inquiry, I should have thought—I have had no opportunity of consulting legal authorities—that it was within their competence to lay down the procedure which they should adopt. I take it to be the usual practice that they have complete authority over their own procedure. If in the course of that procedure they came to a decision by which only persons who were implicated should be given the right of attending and 1440 appearing by counsel, that would be understood—at any rate, it would not be unintelligible.
§ Mr. TENNANT
Obviously nobody is implicated if no charges are made. But, inasmuch as some charges are made and some irregularities have been discovered, or are thought to have been discovered, clearly there are persons whose characters are impugned. I am glad to have the presence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, who will be able to supplement my observations on this point, if the occasion demands it. Speaking generally, I should have thought that it was quite within the competence of such a tribunal to lay down what its own procedure should be. If a gentleman thinks that he is implicated in any way, but the Court does not think so, his course is perfectly clear; he is not implicated, and I should have thought that that would have given enormous relief to my hon. Friend. I will engage so far as this: If my hon. Friend assures me that he is able to produce before this Court first-hand evidence which he alone can give, I will make that representation officially to the Court of Inquiry, and ask them that he should be heard on that. I will go one step further: I will engage to request the Court of Inquiry to look at the observations which my hon. Friend has made to-day in the House of Commons, and to ask them whether, in the light of those observations, they consider not only that he should be a witness—which I understand he does not want to be—but that he should be a person who is a party, as it were, to the inquiry. I hope that that will satisfy my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. TENNANT
If that does not satisfy my hon. Friend, I should like to know what in the name of goodness will!
§ Mr. HOGGE
I will say quite frankly what will satisfy me. If I am allowed equal advantage in that Court with everybody else who is appearing for anybody interested, to intervene as they are-allowed to intervene, to see that none of the charges I have made are rebutted without my being allowed to re-establish them by cross-examination, I shall be satisfied. I do not want any special treatment. I do not want any special privileges 1441 which my right hon. Friend may secure because he is Under-Secretary of State for War. I want my rights.
§ Mr. TENNANT
I am most anxious that my hon. Friend should secure his rights. The difficulty is to say what his rights may be, and I do not know that he altogether understands that himself. I am quite sure that all my hon. Friend wants, and all that the House wants, and certainly all that the War Office wants, is justice. We are most anxious that justice should be done, and that no injustice should by any accident be perpetrated on anyone. I do not know that I can do more than ask my hon. Friend whether, in the light of what I have indicated—my promise to bring to the attention of the Court of Inquiry the observations he has made and the part he desires to play—
§ Mr. TENNANT
It is all very well for my hon. Friend to shake his head, but he has informed me that he does desire to play his part, or, at any rate, to take his part in the inquiry.
§ Mr. HOGGE
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend, but he is getting back to his phrase of this afternoon about my "ambition to appear." I do not desire to play any part in the inquiry. I desire to protect my interests. My charges will, in the course of this inquiry, be met by persons who will be called. If I am not allowed to cross-examine those witnesses and the alleged evidence that they bring against my facts, what really is the use of the inquiry?
§ Mr. TENNANT
I am really unable to give my hon. Friend a pledge that he will be allowed to take that part which he desires before a Court which is, as I think, a tribunal able to govern its own procedure. If they decline to accept the proposal made by my hon. Friend, I am afraid we must leave it in the hands of the Court. Perhaps in the light of what has occurred to-day other courses may be adopted. I can only promise that I will bring the matter to the knowledge of the Court, and I must abide by their decision.
§ Sir A. MARKHAM
This question raises an issue of very great importance as to the rights of Members of this House. On two or three occasions I have been called to account and asked to repeat outside the House what I have said inside, and I have always been willing, as I think 1442 most of us are, not to shelter myself behind the privileges of this House. It seems to me that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has taken the only course possible. Our position in this House, as I understand it, is that we sit here as a tribunal. My hon. Friend, admittedly moved by public motives in the public interest, and for no other reason, makes certain definite charges against certain persons whose names I need not mention. Having from his place in this House called attention to these facts, and the Secretary of State having as a consequence established a tribunal, it seems to me that it is my hon. Friend's duty to lay before that tribunal—which he himself says in his opinion is a fair tribunal—the information that he possesses, and then to leave it to the tribunal to ascertain the truth and report its finding to the House. Otherwise, if the claim of any Member interested in a particular subject to go before a Court of Inquiry were permitted, we should never know where the rights of individual Members started or ended. If every Member who makes a charge were entitled to claim that he should be heard before the Court, no Court of Inquiry would be large enough to hold the Members of the House.
§ Mr. BOOTH
I want to support my hon. Friend (Mr. Hogge). I have some interest in this matter, because I have a working connection with some members of this battalion. I have not intervened before, but I have been exceedingly interested on that account. The proceedings of which I have heard to-day have filled me with dismay. I had hoped that, at any rate, the War Office was going to be very different from the Office of Works. They brought in a kind of inquiry, and then immediately set all their wits to work and made efforts to burk it, and when things were coming out they misrepresented them, and printed a whole budget full of false stuff in order to throw the House off the scent. I had hoped that the War Office would have behaved very much better, and that when my hon. Friend asks that he might be given an opportunity to put some questions, in case he thinks that certain facts are not coming out, that that should be given. It is a little thing to ask. I quite agree with the hon. Baronet who has just spoken that a little common sense must be used. Undoubtedly there was something radically wrong. That was shown when my hon. Friend raised the question before. It is shown by the fact that an inquiry has been granted. The inquiry 1443 has not been granted merely because an hon. Member asked a question, but because something is wrong.
Everyone knows that something is radically wrong, and the thing is not merely to do justice, but to let the light in. We do not want justice done merely. We want to know what these mysterious transactions mean. Therefore, I would appeal to the Under-Secretary and say that the more simple thing is that the hon. Member should be present. If he puts a question that is not suitable the President can stop it. If he puts too many questions he can be checked. At any rate, he should be allowed to attend and be able to suggest questions to be put to the witnesses. I appeal to the Government. These matters, after all, are grave. They are causing a good deal of trouble in the country. I myself get dozens of letters almost every day, complaining of scandals and jobbery all over the country in connection with camps and contracts. I really have not time to go into them all. The complaints are brought forward by reputable persons. I received one this morning from a man who gave his park and the extensive grounds of his estate in the Midlands for a camp to be made. He gave it entirely to the War Office, but he is so scandalised with what is going on that he has written this letter of complaint to me. The rector of a parish, too, writes asking that care should be taken that his choir boys and those who attend his church should not be corrupted. Tradesmen of all kinds, men 1444 in public positions, and others complain, and there is no doubt that there is an amount of jobbery and mismanagement in connection with these matters which is colossal.
It is a very simple thing. A charge has been made definite. An hon. Gentleman in the House has the courage to go before the tribunal, and attempt to put his points. The privilege is denied him. I am perfectly sure we shall not attach any confidence to the Report. The simplest way is to brush aside, it may be a little precedent, or something of the kind. I do not know that it means much, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will do it. I give the Under-Secretary for War credit for this: that although he has put to him more questions than anybody else in the House, he never evades them, but if he cannot give the information he has the courage to say so. On the other hand, his colleagues attempt to give answers, and give evasive answers and smile, not having the courage of the right hon. Gentleman to say whether they will or will not give a specific reply. In order to complete the category of his virtues and to endow him with a crown of glory, I ask that he should grant the request of my hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh, so that he may, at any rate, submit his questions to the President if he feels that some hidden truth should be revealed. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will concede that small point.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Ten minutes before Eight o'clock.