HC Deb 31 July 1923 vol 167 cc1305-18
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

I beg to move, That the period of suspension from the service of the House of Mr. Maxton, Mr. Wheatley, Mr. Stephen, and Mr. Buchanan do terminate this day. I am afraid I must trouble the House with a few remarks on this Motion. It may be within the recollection of the House that Standing Order No. 18, Section (2), reads at present: If any Member be suspended under this Order, his suspension on the first occasion"— and there it stops. The reason of that is that, while for more than 20 years before 1902 the old Standing Order read that such suspension should vary as from a week for the first offence and so forth, in 1902 the Government of the day sought to make an alteration in the period, and to insert in the Standing Order what had not been previously inserted, namely, the necessity for an apology in any circumstances before a Member could be readmitted after suspension. That question was debated at great length in 1902, and there was so great a divergence of opinion that the Government finally withdrew all their proposals, and left the Standing Order in the form in which it is to-day. The result of there being no agreement arrived at with regard to periods was that the suspension would last for the Session if no Motion to the contrary were submitted; and the responsibility for making a Motion was not left to the suggestion of Mr. Speaker, nor to the Leader of any party, but to the Leader of the House, and it is rather invidious work for the Leader of the House, for he has to take into consideration, in the first place, what in his view is a reasonable punishment—for that is what the application of a period of suspension amounts to—a reasonable punishment in the absence of an apology; and, secondly, he has to consider how far the extent of that punishment commends itself to the general judgment, not merely of one party, but of that House against which the Members in question at various times have offended. I think it would be the greatest service in the future if, before very long, the House would make up its mind in what direction it would like to see that second Section of Standing Order No. 18 put into final and workable form.

I think we have to consider first the precedents since 1902, to see what the view of the House has been in dealing with cases—the House will forgive me for repeating it again—where no apology has been tendered, because the practice has always been that the tendering of an apology, even if it should be on the day on which the offence was committed, wipes out the offence, and the suspension is not put into force. About the time that the alteration was made in the Rules, in 1902, there occurred the suspension of Mr. Dillon, which lasted one week—I am only dealing with cases where there was no apology—and the Motion for the suspension was rescinded at the instance of Mr. Balfour, who was then the Leader of the House. In 1913 came the case, with which most hon. Members are familiar, of Mr. Moore, and his suspension lasted for three weeks. On that occasion the Motion was moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith), and it was supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Glasgow (Mr. Bonar Law), who expressed it as his view that three weeks was an ample period for suspensions, and he hoped that it would be taken as a precedent. In 1920, Mr. Devlin was suspended, and his period of suspension was interrupted by the adjournment of the House—there was an Autumn Session that year; but the Motion for his restoration was put down within three days of the re-assembling of the House, so that the actual amount of Parliamentary time for which he was suspended was 13 days.

These were all three cases of Irishmen, and now we have to deal with cases of Scotsmen; but, before coming to them, I would like to say, if it be any comfort to any section of the House which believes that England always pays for everything, that the longest period of suspension was in the case of an Englishman, Mr. Albert Grayson, who was suspended in 1908, and whose suspension was allowed to run until the end of the Session, which made a period of nine weeks.


He was a Labour man.


The House will see, therefore, that the periods of suspension had nothing consistent about them; they have varied from as little as one week to as long as nine weeks. In my view it is fair and reasonable on this occasion to take a mid-period of about five weeks, such as has elapsed in this case, and I believe that that view will commend itself to a majority of this House. I hope very much that the House will not allow itself to be influenced unduly by anything that may have taken place outside its precincts. We have to deal with the purging of an offence to the House on the Floor of the House, and I think that it would be beneath the dignity of this House to be guided from time to time by every ebullition of feeling that might occur outside the House. It could only lead to an unseemly prolongation of the period of suspension, alternating with Motions being put down and with something occurring outside which caused the withdrawal of those Motions. I am quite convinced, after giving careful consideration to this case, that the dignity of the House would be better maintained by accepting this Resolution to-day, on one of the closing days of the Session, in order that we may part, before we go for our holidays, with this case, which has been a painful one to the House; and I hope that the House will accept this period as a due punishment for an offence committed—a punishment which has been imposed by the will of the House—and will regard the offence now as being expiated.

4.0 P.M.


The right hon. Gentleman has rightly stated that 21 years ago the rule dealing with suspension was left in an incomplete state. The rule has remained incomplete for 21 years; that is to say, that under the rule as it now stands, if a Member be suspended, he will be suspended until the end of the Session, unless a Motion be made, as is being done now, it being, of course, well understood that should the hon. Member apologize to the House, a Motion for the termination of his suspension would be received by acclamation by every single Member of the House. But that apology has not been made, and I will ask the House to consider how the hon. Members in question have acted since their suspension. I would like here to say that it is a question for the House. It is not a question for the Government or for the Opposition; it is a question for the House itself. We are making this Motion when only yesterday three of the Members in question, after having written a letter to you, Sir, quoting a precedent, with which I shall deal, and making themselves judges in their own case, stating that in their opinion they ought to come back and were going to come back, came down to the House in order to flout the House and to disregard its rules; and they were only prevented from doing that by the action of the police. What have the hon. Members done since they were suspended? There is a letter in the "Times" to-day signed by a gentleman who stood as a Labour candidate at the last Election, in which he tells us—I have not been able to check the statement, but I assume it is correct—that the four Members in question have been down to their constituents and have asked their constituents whether or not they should apologise to the House and their constituents, I presume, have said, "No." They are, therefore, making their constituents the judges of what is to be done in this House.


Hear, hear!


The gentleman in question in the letter says: Such procedure would render Parliamentary Government impossible. May I for a moment deal with the precedents to which the Prime Minister has alluded? The first precedent was 20 or 21 years ago, and it was that of Mr. Dillon, who did not apologise, and who was out for a week. I do not remember the circumstances of that suspension, but it is quite evident that at that time the new rule had been in force only a few days or weeks, and therefore it was not unjustifiable to make an exception in Mr. Dillon's favour. I may also point out that Mr. Dillon's behaviour during his suspension was very different from the behaviour of these four hon. Members. Then we come to the case of Mr. Moore. Those hon. Members who were in the House in 1913 will remember that case. I do not propose to go into it now beyond saying that the words which Mr. Moore used, under very great provocation, were: Disgraceful trickery.


Are you not a provocation?


They are not words of a very strong order. Listen to the words of the hon. Member for th9 Bridgeton Division of Glasgow (Mr. Maxton): I call the men who walked into the Lobby in support of that policy murderers. They have blood on their hands—the blood of infants. It is a fearful thing for any man to have on his soul—a cold, callous, deliberate crime in order to save money."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1923; col. 2382, Vol. 165.


Hear, hear!


I ask you, Mr. Speaker, and I ask the House whether any man could lay to the charge of another man a more grievous or awful crime. I have been 31 years in this House, and I have heard hon. Members on all sides of the House, under provocation or whatever you may call it, use words which in their calmer moments they would not have used. But I never could have conceived it possible that a man could coolly and deliberately, as I am prepared to show, get up in this House, and use the words which I have just read. You could not call a man by a worse name or attribute to him a worse crime.

What were the actual facts? The hon. Member for Northern Lanark (Mr. Sullivan) was making a speech about housing, and he alluded to the shortage of houses in Glasgow. He said something about children which I did not catch, and he then said something about saving money and I said "Hear, hear!" I have the OFFICIAL REPORT in my pocket, and I said "Hear, hear!" in such a way that if hon. Members will look at the OFFICIAL REPORT, they will see that there is no name mentioned. But in little brackets there are the words [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear !"]. When I said "Hear, hear I" the hon. Member for Lanarkshire said: "I do not resent that interruption, but I should like to ask the right hon. Member how he would like his daughter to live in a one-roomed house." I made no answer. I did not think that it was a question which I had any need to answer. The hon. Member concluded his speech, and I left the House. That was all the remark that I made, with the exception of a correction of the hon. Member when he had misquoted me earlier. I venture to say that the fact that the hon. Member for Northern Lanark asked whether I would like my daughter to live in a one-roomed house shows that the hon. Member, like myself, was under the impression that the matter he was discussing was a question of housing.

I went out of the House, and was out about three-quarters of an hour. I came in again behind your Chair, and, as I entered, I heard the hon. Member for the Bridgeton Division of Glasgow mention my name. I did not hear what he said. I came in and sat on the front bench. I took my hat off, and I said: "If the hon. Member wishes to ask me any questions, I shall be prepared to answer." The hon. Member said: "There is nothing to answer." I came back to my present seat, and the Debate went on for a quarter of an hour, and nothing further happened. Then the hon. Member used the words which I read to the House a short time ago. I say, therefore, that the hon. Member was not speaking under excitement. He was speaking coolly and deliberately, and the three hon. Members who later on supported him also did it deliberately. This House is face to face with the question, "Are we going to maintain the old rules of order, or are we not?" If we are not, we cannot carry on this House, and we cannot carry on Parliamentary Government. We must not forget that certain hon. Members, coming from Scotland—I do not know whether these four are included—publicly stated to their constituents and to the country that, when they came into this House, they would break its rules and overthrow its rules. Are we going to submit to that?


On a point of Order. [Interruption.] I am doing what the right hon. Gentleman did on that occasion when he rose to a point of Order. As a Glasgow Member, and as one, therefore, who comes under the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman, I should like him to quote—[Interruption]—I should like him to mention to the House when and where that statement was made.


That is not a point of Order.


Is the right hon. Gentleman then to be allowed to make inaccurate statements?


We have to decide whether we intend to insist upon the rules of order being maintained, those rules being the product of many years of wisdom and thought, and being rules which up to the present time have, on the whole, operated so as to enable Par- liamentary Government to continue. There is one precedent to which the Prime Minister alluded, that of Mr. Grayson. Mr. Grayson was suspended—I do not care whether it was for seven, eight or nine weeks—for the remainder of the Session. Why does not the right hon. Gentleman act upon that precedent, unless the Members in question apologise. I would conclude by asking the Prime Minister if he could not see his way to withdraw this Motion. If after this Debate the hon. Members in question do the right thing and write to you and apologise for their conduct, every one of us will be only too glad to see them back, but, until they do that, I submit that we should be making a grievous error to let them come back.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir M. ARCHER-SHEE

I wish to say one word in reference to this matter, because I wish to appeal to the Prime Minister to take off the Government Whips and to allow this matter to go to a decision of the House. As my right hon. Friend has said, this is a matter for the House and not for any party. I am quite sure that there is not a man in this House who, if these hon. Members had apologised, would not have welcomed them back, as is the ordinary way in which the House treats Members who have made a mistake. These Members not only called my right hon. Friend a murderer and other hon. Members on this side of the House, but they deliberately insulted the Chair, and went on persistently insulting the Chair. In addition, they have gone about the country since saying that they have no intention of apologising, and, if they are taken back without apologising, as they ought to do; they will regard it as a victory. I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend does not mind being called epithets by them any more than a lion objects to the yelping of jackals, but, if hon. Members of this House have made fools of themselves, that is no reason why this House should not maintain the precedents which have always been followed in the past.

There is another precedent beside those quoted by the Prime Minister. There was the case of John Maclure, in 1892, who broke the rules of the House. He apologised, but that was not considered enough. It was a question of intimidation of a witness. He not only apologised most abjectly, but the House received his apology and ordered him to be admonished by Mr. Speaker, and Mr. Speaker admonished him in these words. I will only read the first few lines of it, as he did it at length. It now become my duty, as the mouthpiece of the House and as the interpreter of its wishes, to state to you what is the opinion of the House upon your conduct. It is quite true that you have made an apology to the House for an undoubted breach of its privileges. I need hardly tell you that a mere apology does not always-cover the extent and surface of an offence, but the House has taken a lenient view in that respect of your conduct and has expressed, in its Resolution, its willingness-to accept your apology. But that is not all. The House has instructed me to admonish you for a grave breach of the privileges of this House. I think these hon. Members not only ought to apologise, but they ought to be admonished by you, Sir, for the gross outrage which they have perpetrated upon this House.


I rise certainly not for the purpose of importing any further heat into this discussion. We can enter very fully into the feelings of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), but I am sure he will be the last man to put his own feelings this afternoon before the right conduct of the House of Commons.


I have said over and over again that I do not want an apology for myself. I am quite willing to drop it, but I demand an apology to Mr. Speaker and to the House.


I was perfectly certain that was the right hon. Gentleman's attitude, that the offence was against the Chair and the House, and to that extent it is on all fours exactly with the case of Mr. Moore. If hon. Members would look at the Moore case they would find that the words used by him were most offensive. They were a direct attack upon the Chair—a far more direct attack than took place five weeks ago. Mr. Moore made it perfectly clear that he accused the Chair and the Secretary to the Treasury of "a piece of disgraceful trickery." and then proceeded to accuse the Chair of partiality in the conduct of the affairs of the House. I hope hon. Members will think twice before they come to a hasty decision as to how they are going to vote this after- noon. Mr. Moore's offence was committed under great provocation, the right hon. Gentleman says. I was present. The provocation was one which an old Member of the House, a Member learned in the law, a Member accustomed surely, to control himself, might have been expected to disregard. Not only that, but the point about the' Moore case was that a Division was taken after he had used the offensive language—a Division on another point altogether—and then when the House came back, after the advantage of a 20 minutes interval, Mr. Moore, in cold blood, in a calm frame of mind, deliberately got up and repeated the statement he had originally made. It was a deliberate insult offered to the Chair. His suspension followed. Many hon. Members opposite, who were then Members of the House sitting on this side, voted against the suspension in spite of that—some of them important Members, some of them sitting on the Front Bench now. Three weeks elapsed. Then the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith) moved that the suspension be now terminated. He used these words: It is a very serious thing to deprive a constituency of its representation in this House for a longer time than is absolutely necessary in order to vindicate our traditions and our Rules of Order. He also said: Three weeks is at least as long a term as has ever been considered necessary by the House for a purpose of this sort. That is not all. The late Prime Minister, himself a Member for Glasgow, then Leader of the Opposition, got up and said that the course taken by the Government, was in his opinion, the course which ought to be taken whoever the Member was who committed the offence, and the precedent set that day would, he was sure, be applied in future. That is the opinion of their own late Leader, the ex-Prime Minister.

Another point emerges—the conduct of the four hon. Members who are now suspended. It is on exactly all fours with the conduct of Mr. Moore. Mr. Moore went to his constituency, Mr. Moore gloried in what he had done, Mr. Moore in public boasted that on no account would he apologise. Mr. Moore took his punishment and, the punishment having been meted out, this House decided to terminate the period of suspension. The right hon. Gentleman referred to what took place yesterday. The Prime Minister to-day is not acting as Prime Minister exactly but as Leader of the House, as I am acting at the moment not as Leader of the Labour Parity but as Leader of the Opposition. Both he and I are careful to do our best to preserve the best traditions and the finest spirit of the House in asking that the suspension should be removed. He and I for the last fortnight have been working away at this matter. The events of yesterday and the publication of that letter, I can assure hon. Members opposite and hon. Members on this side, have had no more to do with the putting down of this Resolution than the box in front of which I am speaking. So far as the Members were concerned, they never intended that it should be anything but a technical claim of the right of individual Members to be received here. They gave the Moore precedent, and said, "Why are we to be treated differently?" They have been quoting the words of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley. They have been quoting the words of the late Prime Minister. They have taken the words of the latter in particular as a definite statement, accepted by both sides of the House, that any future suspension should terminate at the end of three weeks, and a fortnight after that having elapsed they rightly or wrongly—I think if I might say so following a very bad judgment—decided to send you, Sir, that letter and to make an appearance at the House of Commons yesterday, a technical appearance as everyone who saw it knows perfectly, and turned away when the policeman told them the suspension still ran, and they could not approach the precincts.

I have no intention of saying a word more. I hope the House is going to behave in what I am sure most of the old Parliamentary hands will say is a proper way. Suspension is a punishment. Make no mistake about that. If a Member is suspended and apologises, this House is always generous. The suspension is at once terminated when Mr. Speaker signifies to the Leader of the House that he is satisfied with the apology. That is one way, but there is another way. It may be the best way, but it is not the only way. The other precedents are perfectly clear that the period of suspen- sion may run, and if the Member does not apologise, this House, recognising its responsibility to the constituency and declining absolutely, as the House ought, to recognise anything that happens outside, short always of a breach of privilege, removes the sentence when the punishment is complete. For us Members of Parliament, not individually, but as parts of this great historic assembly, to go and scan every word and every sentence said by Members outside about us or about themselves, is really too much beneath our dignity, and beneath the dignity of the House of Commons to take into account when it is asked to vote for or against such a Resolution as this. Therefore, I appeal to hon. Members opposite, as well as to hon. Members on this side, to pass this Resolution and to take up the proper attitude that suspension is a sentence. When the sentence is finished, then the Members of the House are brought back without apology, and that was undoubtedly the sense of the Members of the House in 1902 when the Standing Orders were under consideration. I hope, therefore, the Resolution which has been moved by the Leader of the House will be carried by the House.


It is with very great reluctance that I intervene in this Debate. I have never known a case in which a Motion of this kind has been made by the Leader of the House, on his responsibility not as head of the Government, but as representing the corporate sense and authority of the House of Commons, when it has not been accepted. I should be very sincerely anxious for our future if we were to set such an evil precedent as is suggested to-day. Do not let it be supposed that I am for a moment extenuating the gravity of the offence which has been committed. It is one of the worst, in a long Parliamentary experience, which it has been my ill-fortune to witness. Nor can I wonder at the degree of feeling which has been shown by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), who we all know is in disposition and practice one of the humanest of men, when a suggestion apparently, as he thought, personally directed against him was made. There is a fact, and a very important fact, which has been, as far as I have heard, completely ignored in this dis- cussion. It is true that we ought to vindicate the authority of the House of Commons. At the same time we ought, not to be forgetful of the interests of constituencies. The prolongation of a sentence of suspension is, in substance, a temporary disfranchisement of the constituencies which these hon. Members represent. In the case of Mr. Moore—a very bad case, in all its circumstances—when I took the responsibility as Leader of the House, after the expiration of three weeks' suspension, of moving that he be re-admitted, without apology, I said that I thought it a very serious thing to deprive a constituency of its representation in the House for a longer time than is absolutely necessary in order to vindicate our traditions and our Rules of Order. I hold that opinion still. That Motion was assented to by the then Leader of the Opposition, the late Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Central Glasgow (Mr. Bonar Law). Perhaps you will allow me to say, Mr. Speaker, that the offence on that occasion was directed against yourself. You were at that time our Chairman of Ways and Means. The Chairman of Ways and Means, now occupying the Chair as Mr. Speaker, said on that occasion: I am in full accord with everything the Prime Minister has said. … I am sure that whoever happened to be in the Chair would take the same view. We have, therefore, in that case, the Leader of the House, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chairman of Ways and Means all assenting to the view that the dignity of the House had been sufficiently vindicated by a suspension of three weeks' duration, even without apology, and that the rights of constituencies must not be ignored. I do net know of any other case since 1902 where a Member's suspension has been continued more than three weeks—[HON. MEMBERS: "Victor Grayson!"]—except the case of Mr. Grayson. Mr. Grayson on the first occasion, I think, described the majority of Members of this House as traitors, and on the next day he described them as murderers. Thereupon, on his being named by Mr. Speaker, I moved the ordinary Motion for his suspension. That happened on the 16th October, 1908, at the beginning of the Autumn Session. On the 17th December, exactly two months later, I was asked by Mr. Belloc, who was then a Member of the House, if I would afford facilities for a Motion for the re-admission of Mr. Grayson, in view of the fact that the procedure on the suspension of Members was in a state of ambiguity. We were then within two days of the prorogation, and I said: I do not think at this period of the Session, when the business of the House is so nearly finished, that there would be any advantage in giving facilities for a Motion to readmit the hon. Member. If earlier representation had been made, and there was a desire that the House should express an opinion upon the matter, I should have been glad to have given an opportunity. I would have given that opportunity. That case cannot be taken as a serious exception to the uniform practice of the House. It is, I think, very discreditable to the House of Commons that this rule as to suspension should be in its present condition. It has remained so for 21 years. It was passed in 1902, and it is an extraordinary thing that we have in our Standing Orders this singular provision: If any Member be suspended under this Order, his suspension on the first occasion. It is an incomplete sentence. It means nothing, and it comes to nothing. There we have remained for 21 years. The old rule for which this rule was substituted provided a graduated scale. On the first occasion the suspension should continue for one week—that was what Lord Balfour had in mind in the case of Mr. Dillon—on the second occasion for a fortnight, and on the third or any subsequent occasion, one month, so that under the old practice the suspension was never contemplated to be longer than a month. Under the old rule which was abrogated by this incomplete sentence in 1902, the utmost punishment that was ever contemplated, even when the offence was repeated twice or three times, was a period of one month. These four hon. Members have been out of the House for five weeks. If our procedure had remained as it was before 1902, even if they had repeated their offence, their suspension would have come to an end before now.

What possible objection can there be to this Motion? You have in the case, which is by far the most relevant, of Mr. Moore, the combined opinion of the then Leader of the House, the Leader of the Opposition and he Chairman of Ways and Means, assented to without Division, and, as far as I know, without adverse criticism in any quarter of the House, that in normal conditions a sentence of three weeks is sufficient. These Gentlemen have been suspended for a longer term than that. I think the House of Commons would be taking a retrograde step in objecting to this Motion—I have nothing to say in extenuation or defence of the offence that has been committed—and acting with a harshness that it has never previously shown, and would inflict upon these constituencies a prolongation of their compulsory non-representation in this House which the circumstances do not justify. I appeal very strongly to the House to support the Motion made by the Leader of the House, and to carry it without a dissenting voice.


I should like to appeal to my hon. Friends not to press their opposition to this Motion to a Division. This is one of the occasions on which we ought to combine to support the dignity and authority of the House. Any student of Parliamentary history must be aware that whenever the House has entered into long and embittered conflict with individuals it has never conduced either to the dignity or the authority of the House. These conflicts have occurred very frequently in the history of the House of Commons, and I think I am right in saying that in no single instance has the House of Commons come out of the conflict with individuals without discredit. I hope, therefore, that we shall support my right hon. Friend's Motion, which I believe is in the interests of the dignity and authority of the House. I do so specially because the Leader of the House is entitled on this occasion to a special degree of support. He has considered the matter, I am sure, in a judicial spirit, and it would greatly weaken his authority and his power to serve the House unless he can feel that on an occasion of this kind he has the loyal and devoted support, not only of his own supporters, but of the Whole House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That the period of suspension from the service of the House of Mr. Maxton, Mr. Wheatley, Mr. Stephen, and Mr. Buchanan do terminate this day.