HC Deb 10 December 1928 vol 223 cc1711-7

I beg to move, That the passage in the Evening News' newspaper of Friday last constitutes a libel on the Chairman of Ways and Means, and is a gross breach of the Privileges of this House. The passage to which I desire to call the attention of the House, in the "Evening News" newspaper of the 7th December, and which, in my opinion, constitutes a gross breach of the Privileges of this House, is as follows: MR. HOPE'S PRUNING. Mr. Hope, who as Chairman of Committee will preside over the House when it considers the De-Rating Bill, Clause by Clause, is, in one way, in a happy position. With the time-table in operation, and Clauses that must be passed by certain dates, the Committee Chairman cannot help making himself unpopular with the Opposition: it will be his duty to closure debate, to pick out the few from the many Amendments that are to be discussed. This he cannot help, but the Opposition will not fail to make him the subject of attack. But this is Mr. Hope's last year in the Commons; he is not proposing to contest his present seat at Sheffield again; so, whatever he does, cannot be brought against him in an election contest. The Ministry, in fact, is lucky in having a servant who will carry out instructions without a thought of the ballot box. This imputes to the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of Ways and Means subservience to the Government and is an implication of partiality which appears to me to be as intolerable as it is unjustified. To call any official of the House a servant of the Government is most offensive. The seriousness of the charge is aggravated by the fact that partiality is insinuated in regard to proceedings which have not yet taken place. As the House knows, the Chairman has to carry out the directions of the House in applying what we call a Guillotine Motion and in selecting Amendments under powers given to him by the Standing Order. This duty is sufficiently onerous and thankless without his exposure to insinuations of unfairness or partiality. I do not want the House to attach undue importance to anything that may be written in a newspaper, but the dignity of the House requires that, if newspapers report our speeches or comment on our proceedings, it shall be done decently.


I beg to second the Motion.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

I was only aware a short time ago that this Motion was going to be moved, and it is obviously an occasion, though not calling for protracted debate, on which the Leader of the House would be expected to say a few words, and my words will be few. We occasionally have experience of these Motions. I do not think anyone in the House likes them, but there are times when the House feels that it is necessary that they should be made. So far as individuals are concerned, few of us mind criticism even of this nature. I think it is very possible to over-estimate the effect of such criticism, but, on the other hand, we feel, as a House —and I think all parties feel this, for all parties in turn are responsible for the leading of this House, and the Government of the country—that, while few of us would be found to complain of anything that may be said of us individually, we resent criticism on the honour of the Officers of this House, I think for two reasons: Such criticism, of course, tends to lower the estimation of those Officers in the opinion of the outside world, and those Officers are singularly unable to defend themselves.

Objectionable as it may be to make such criticism of Mr. Speaker, a long Parliamentary experience has taught me that it is almost more objectionable, if possible, to make it of those who sit at this Table, because the position of the Chairman and Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means is a far more difficult one than that of the Speaker. He is not endowed with the ancient traditions that clothe the rank of Speaker, and from that fact—and all who have sat in the Chair at this Table would recognise it—the task is different in essence, and it is more difficult even than that of Mr. Speaker. Then, again, he is always taken from the ranks of the Government side for the time being, and it is more difficult, because of that fact, for the House, at any rate for some time after he begins his work, to divest him of a certain amount of partisan character of which the House so freely divests Mr. Speaker, who goes on generally, irrespective of what Government may be in power, after his first election. I think those are sound observations that I have made and that they will commend themselves certainly to older Members and, I think, to the majority of the Members of this House.

With regard to this particular case, I think there can be little doubt that the insinuation is a peculiarly nasty one. It begins with a statement of fact, I need hardly say incorrectly stated because as, Lord Melbourne—I think it was—said, facts seldom are correctly stated. It begins in the first four or five words with a falsehood, on which is based an insinuation that I think deserves the censure of the House. For myself, I would suggest to the House that we might pass our censure and leave the matter where it is. It is many years since anyone has been at the Bar of the House. In this case, I understand, that this peccant paragraph was withdrawn in the later editions, which looks as though those responsible for its publication had realised, since they saw it, what was implicit in it. I would take that as sufficient apology for us to-day, without claiming our right of bringing the editor to the Bar. I feel that we should make no doubt about our sense of such an article by accepting the Motion which has been moved by the hon. Member for the City of London.


I had no knowledge that this question was going to be raised until the offensive paragraph was read to the House a few moments ago. I think the Prime Minister, in his very brief statement, has made out a case for the House expressing its approval of the Motion that has been read from the Chair, and therefore, by a Division if necessary, hon. Members may record their feeling upon a wholly unjust and partial commentary of this kind. If ever an occasion should arise for such an opinion being expressed—I am not now thinking of the present occupant of the Chair—the first and proper place to express it would be within this House itself, and I think the Opposition, whether this or any other, might well be trusted to defend its rights, and the rights of Parliament, against any partial action of that kind. As to the Prime Minister's statement as to how far this matter should be carried, that, I suppose, could be considered and decided by the Committee of Privileges. I am not absolutely certain at the moment as to the course that should be taken, and, accordingly, I would not say anything now to pledge the Opposition as to any next step that might be taken on the question which you Sir, put from the Chair.


I desire to associate myself with the two right hon. Gentlemen who have spoken. Like the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, this is the first occasion on which I have heard anything about the matter that has been raised. I agree with every word my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, and, in saying that, I think I am speaking for the whole of the party with whom I am associated. I think the Prime Minister's suggestion is the right one. This is not the occasion to say anything about the Chairman of Committees, but at this juncture I might be permitted to say that, as far as we are concerned, we have the most unabated confidence in the Chairman of Committees, and, therefore, we support the Resolution.


As an independent Member, having personally perused the reference which has been dealt with by the House so far, I should like to express the view that it is another instance of the Press transgressing to such an extent upon fair consideration of men in public life in discharging onerous duties that when such a proposal is put forward by an hon. Member upon the other side, the House, by supporting it, will be doing justice by itself and by the interests of Members individually, all of whom are rightly entitled to fair and honourable consideration in the discharge of their duties. Therefore, I heartily support the Resolution.


Seeing that one independent Member of the House has already expressed himself, not claiming to be independent, but only an ordinary Member of this House, who probably has had as much trouble with the Speaker and his assistants as any other hon. Member, I want to say that the real criminal this afternoon has not been brought to book even in the suggestions made. Those who read the ordinary papers day by day know that you may summon a block to the House of Commons, but you never summon the butcher. The real criminal in this case is Lord Rothermere, the modern kingmaker, who can make Governments and unmake them —at least he claims to be able to do so. But you would not ask him to come to the Bar of the House, though you might ask him to the bar. As far as we are concerned, we do not care what he says. When he attacks the Labour party, it is all right, but when he dares to attack the holy of holies it is all wrong. We do not attack hon. Gentlemen and right hon. Gentlemen who occupy those exalted positions, because we hope some day to occupy them ourselves. Therefore, we have great respect for precedents. We admire the gentlemen who occupy those positions, because up to now they have treated us fairly well, and when the time comes, if ever we should have a row with them, it will be a fair and an open one. We will not stab them in the back. We will not use poisoned daggers, but try to speak plain English under plain conditions.

Therefore, I hope that we shall treat these people with the contempt they deserve, whether they be lords or labourers. After all, the Government of the time, happen to be the representatives of the people, whether we agree with them or not, and while we are carrying on our business, at least we are entitled to free-play and fair-play. Therefore, I say that in any attack upon the officers of this House, whether it be justified as regards Members of Parliament— and every man has a right to criticise the Government of the country if he wants to do so, but he has no right to use dirty weapons—we back benchers— I think I can speak for most of my hon. Friends—associate ourselves with this dignified rebuke. Back and front are united, and when we are both united, who can stand against us?

Resolved, That the passage in the 'Evening News' newspaper of Friday last constitutes a libel on the Chairman of Ways and Means, and is a gross breach of the Privileges of this House.