HC Deb 08 July 1926 vol 197 cc2277-81

Mr. Speaker, I desire, with your permission, to make a short personal statement in connection with a question asked to-day by the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston). I had not intended to make any such statement, seeing that up to the present, so far as I know, no charge has been made against me, either in this House or outside. But I observe this morning that a statement has been widely circulated in the Press that I was to make a statement of this kind, and, if I failed to make a statement, it seems to me that I should be placed in an intolerable position, since it might be thought that I desired to evade something, or to keep something back. I understand that for some weeks there have been experts employed, I do not know by whom, or at whose expense, to search the records of Somerset House, and the files of the "Ministry of Labour Gazette," in order to see whether anything could be found that could be used to discredit His Majesty's Ministers. [Interruption.] It is difficult, in the absence of any express charges, to know what I am to reply to, but I will assume three possible charges which may be made. I would like to make a short statement upon each. First of all, there is the charge, implied I think in the question of the hon. Member—who seems to be rather a specialist in this kind of thing. [Interruption.]


I must point out to the House that a statement made at the end of Questions must be confined to non-controversial points. I have already refused, from another quarter of the House, a matter which I thought did not comply with that condition. It is because it would lead either to debate, or to something which could not be completed without debate, that that Rule is in force.


How, Mr. Speaker, can it possibly be a non-controversial statement when it is challenging a. Minister's honour?


Further on that point of Order. If the right hon. Gentleman is not aware of the nature of the charges that are to be formulated against him, had he not better wait until such charges are formulated before making a statement?


It is controversial, then, according to that statement.


The House has always, as a matter of courtesy, listened to a statement of this kind from whatever quarter it comes. We had one only a few days ago from the hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Saklatvala). The House always affords that courtesy. The Rule is that these statements must be personal statements, and must not raise matters which will necessitate debate. A Debate, if there are personal charges, can only take place on a substantive Motion properly tabled.


What was actually said by the Minister which conflicted with your ruling, Sir?


I thought it would be best at the beginning, anticipating what might possibly develop in the House, to lay down the rule which has held for many years—for many hundreds of years.


On the point of Order. May I submit that it is quite impossible for Members of His Majesty's Government to wait, for these charges to be formulated, since not one Member of the Opposition has had the courage to formulate any charge? They have confined themselves solely to insinuations which they cannot substantiate and do not dare to—[Interruption.]


That is a matter with which I am not dealing. All I say is that a Minister, like any other Member of the House, is entitled to make a. personal statement, but that personal statement ought not to involve any attack on any other Member of the House. That is the rule universally applied by the Chair.


In completing my statement, I will endeavour to avoid anything which is not absolutely necessary for the purpose of personal defence. I assume that the first charge is that, being a member of the Government, I have retained a directorship I think my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has shown convincingly that in retaining the directorship of this private and family concern, I am acting in strict accordance with what has been the practice of Governments for the lass 25 years. But in a newspaper I find, in the issue of 7th July, the following statement, which seems to imply a further charge: In the Debate on a Motion calling attention to the fact that relations of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain had large interests in concerns which receive contracts from the Government, on 10th December, 1900, the principle that no Minister ought to hold investments in companies which derive their profits largely from Government contracts was generally agreed to. That is in direct contradiction of the facts, as anybody will see who refers to the Debate in question in 1900. It is a curious fact that in that Debate, which took place 26 years ago, this identical company was quoted by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), who was, at that time, seeking to persuade the House to accept an Amendment to the Address. It was quoted by him in a speech in which he dilated upon it with much sarcasm. It was then said in reply to him by Colonel Milward, at that time Member for Stratford-on-Avon, that the firm of Hoskins and Sons was mainly the business of Mr. Neville Chamberlain. The Amendment was defeated by a large majority, and it never has been laid down or agreed in this House that no Minister should hold shares in any company which might from time to time have contracts with Government Departments. It would not be in order for me to enter into the merits of that general position. I merely state that that is the fact.

I think there is a third charge, which is more personal and seems to suggest that I may have used my position as a director of this particular company to obtain contracts from the Government. May I then say, Sir, that for many years I have taken no active part whatever in the administration of this company. I do not know, I do not ask what contracts they have. My connection with it is simply that of a trustee for the family interests which arc concerned, and I cannot say now whether or not the company holds contracts from any Government Department. What I do know is that at the time when I was actively concerned with the company, dating from its formation in 1897, the business which it did with Government Departments formed only a trifling proportion of its whole turnover, its business being concerned mainly with shipping and shipbuilding companies and, as far as I am aware, there has been no change in that respect since.


I am aware that it would not be in order to debate the explanation which has just been made to the House by the right hon. Gentleman, but I will say with your permission, Sir, that on the issue which has been raised and on the questions that have been submitted it can only be said, so far as this House is concerned, that if any charges have been made they have been made by way of trying to obtain information in the way that is proper in connection with the carrying on of the business of this House. There seems to be a suspicion that we are afraid on this side to make the charges in the proper way—that is in the way that is considered proper by hon. Members opposite—and in view of that, I ask the Prime Minister whether he will afford us at an early date an opportunity for this matter to be fully discussed.


Of course any time the right hon. Gentleman desires to put clown a Motion, we shall be pleased to afford time, or the matter can be raised on another occasion without putting down a Motion.


I consider this matter to be of such great public importance that I wish to intimate to the House that we will accept the offer of the Prime Minister and table a Motion for debate.


May I ask for information? In the event of a Minister of the Crown making very serious allegations against Members either of boards of guardians or other bodies, and refusing to investigate those charges, is there any remedy inside this House? [Interruption.] Never you mind. You shut your mouth.




I did not hear what the hon. Gentleman said. It was drowned by a disorderly interruption. Hon. Members, I hope, will restrain themselves. It merely distracts attention from things that really matter. In the last few weeks, I am aware that Members have been under a considerable sense of strain, but that very fact ought to lead them to greater restraint. They are dealing with great national issues, and these are only obscured by the behaviour of some Members of the House in the last two or three weeks. I make a strong appeal to Members to remember the duties which are entrusted to them.


I wish to ask for your ruling on this point, Mr. Speaker. In the present circumstances, when the whole House has agreed to a Debate upon the conduct of the Minister, may I ask your ruling as to whether it is competent for that Minister to continue to represent the Crown until that Debate is over?


Certainly it is.