HC Deb 16 April 1934 vol 288 cc714-29

I desire to ask leave to raise a question of Privilege and to ask your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, as to whether I may submit a Motion thereupon to the House. On personal grounds, I raise this question with the greatest reluctance, but I also do so with the conviction that I have no other choice. A mass of evidence has been placed at my disposal unreservedly. It is evidence of so remarkable a character that I feel bound to bring the subject before the House, and I do so in accordance with the Rules of Procedure, which prescribe that such matters shall be raised at the first Parliamentary opportunity after the facts have been ascertained by any Member of the House. I ask leave, Sir, to submit that a breach of the privileges of the House of Commons has arisen out of certain proceedings of some members of the Joint Select Committee upon Indian Constitutional Reform. I shall state the facts briefly and as far as possible without comment, because I feel that this matter in the first instance requires investigation by the Committee of Privileges.

During the month of May, 1933, last year, the India section of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce was engaged in preparing its evidence for the Joint Select Committee, which was then and is now sitting. As soon as the forecast and outline of this evidence reached the Secretary of State for India, sharp differences of opinion arose between him and the then President of the Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Richard Bond, and, as I assert, the Secretary of State from that date set himself to prevent the presentation of the Lancashire evidence in the form in which those most concerned in the welfare of the cotton industry wished to present it. A month passed, and in the middle of June, 1933, the same year, the India section of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce completed its preparation of the evidence. The evidence was printed, and 100 copies were duly forwarded to the Secretary of the Joint Select Committee, by whom they were formally received. It was then expected that the hearing of this evidence would take place on the 30th June. Actually, it did not take place until the 4th November of last year.

Early and full information of the character of the evidence, if not indeed—but I have to be very careful only to base myself on facts, which I undertake to prove—if not indeed an actual advance copy of the text, reached my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and thereafter, almost immediately thereafter, a dinner was held in London, on the 27th June, at Lord Derby's house, to which the principal members of the India section of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce were invited by Lord Derby. The Secretary of State and two other Ministers of the Crown were present. This was the beginning of a long series of negotiations, amounting to pressure, upon the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, and recognised as pressure by them. This body was chiefly represented, when Mr. Bond had finished his term of office, by Mr. Barlow, the new President of the Chamber, and Mr. Rodier, the Chairman of the India section.

The object of the pressure was to procure a fundamental alteration in the evidence already officially tendered to the Secretary of the Joint Select Committee and already in his possession. I stress that point. To conform with this, the hearing of the evidence was put off, as I have already mentioned. I base the statement that pressure was applied, and the use of the word "pressure," upon the terms of a conclusion reached by the India section of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce on the 28th July of last year, a month after the dinner to which I have referred. Up to this date they were still standing fast to their opinions. The members agreed unanimously that pressure might be brought upon the Chamber to revise their evidence, then agreed and tendered, and they agreed that unless a new situation arose, there should be no suggestion made of making changes in the nature of the Committee's recommendations. I mention this fact to establish the point of pressure.

Now this pressure which the India section of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce apprehended, or was already conscious of, soon came upon them, and I assert that it came primarily from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, through all the channels which His Majesty's Government can command, direct and indirect, and in particular that Lord Derby, a leading member of the Joint Select Committee, visited Manchester in September, interviewed members of the Chamber of Commerce, and sought to persuade them and to counsel them to alter their evidence. Eventually, the Manchester Chamber of Commerce were induced to withdraw the evidence which they had formally presented, and on a date which I cannot inform the House of as yet they procured the surrender of that evidence by the Secretary of the Joint Select Committee, to whom it had been confided and who held it on behalf of the committee as a whole. The 100 copies which ought to have reached the members in due course were thereafter recovered uncirculated.

I do not dispute—it is no part of my case to dispute—the right of witnesses to modify evidence which they have tendered in writing, or after they have tendered it orally, if their better judgment induces them to do so, but I think that when a whole document has been presented, and an entirely different document has been presented, that matter ought not to be a secret from the members of the Joint Select Committee. Anyhow, that is not the point which I have to raise in this submission which I am making. I am concerned entirely with the pressure which was brought to bear upon the members of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce to change their evidence. I am concerned with the quarters from which those pressures arose and the channels through which they were applied, and that is the only matter which is before the House at the present moment.

In the narrative which I am unfolding we have now reached the month of October. By this time there was a mission from the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, including some members of the original India section of the chamber, which was actually in India in connection with the question of Japanese competition. Attempts were made—this is another of my assertions—to persuade this mission to take the responsibility upon themselves of asking that the original evidence should be altered. The mission, however, were on the spot. They had the opportunity of being able to judge how far Lancashire interests would be injured by the publication of the original evidence. They were in a much better position to judge than the members of the Chamber of Commerce at home. There are, I believe, some members of that mission in the House, and they will be able to give their opinion upon the facts which I have stated.

This mission on the spot, who had the opportunity of seeing whether Lancashire interests were endangered and were good judges of that, refused point blank to accept any responsibility for making changes in the evidence. They urged that the evidence should be published in its original form, together with a supplementary paper, which they suggested, of a conciliatory character dwelling on the importance of good will, which we should all admit must play a large part in the solution of these matters. That was what was recommended by this mission in India on the spot, in touch with the circumstances, having an interest in getting an immediate negotiation settled satisfactorily, having a great need to keep in the good graces of the Government of India who were in touch with the Secretary of State. In spite of all that, this is what they recommended, namely, that the evidence should be published as it was originally printed and as it was originally handed in to the Secretary of the Joint Statutory Committee. They telegraphed in this sense. We are now at the 24th October, 1933. On that date, as the result of this continuous, pervasive pressure, the Indian section of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce in spite of what their mission said, took the responsibility upon themselves, under the pressures to which they were subjected, of agreeing to substantial and, indeed, fundamental alterations in the evidence. A new statement of evidence was printed. This was but a ghost of the original evidence, a poor, shrunken, emasculated thing—an acceptance of what might be thought to be an inevitable drift of events. It was but a ghost of the original evidence that Manchester wished to give and bad actually deposited. This in due course was presented to the Joint Select Committee and heard by them at their session on the 4th November, the vast bulk of the members being in total ignorance of what had been going on behind the scenes before they were at last allowed to hear the opinions of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. I must make it clear—because I have to make out the points as I go—that I am prepared to prove, although I am not going to quote any secret documents at this moment, that the differences between the original evidence and the evidence which was tendered eventually were of a decisive character and not small alterations or emendations or tonings down; they were alterations of a decisive character.

I have placed these facts before the House, and I wish now to point my claim that a breach of Privilege has been committed. The members of the Joint Select Committee sit in a judicial capacity. We have been continually assured of this, and also, of course, of their impartiality, and we have all been urged, and are repeatedly urged, in fact—it is the focus of the political situation at the present time—that we should await their decision. In fact, two members of the Joint Select Committee, to wit, the Secretary of State for India and Lord Derby, have been jointly and severally concerned in procuring a complete alteration of the evidence tendered by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and submitted through the usual channels. Their action was no doubt well intentioned. I do not impugn their personal motives. There is no question of personal honour involved in anything I say or in the Motion I shall presently make with your permission. I do not argue on the merits of the question. Many may think that the advice tendered was wise. That is not the question which the House of Commons has to settle this afternoon. I do not argue upon the merits of the question. There is nothing to do with any views about the solution of the Indian problem in this matter. That is a question we shall have plenty of opportunities of discussing later.

But this I say, and I submit to the House and to you, Sir, as Speaker, that it is grossly irregular and highly objectionable for members or a member of the Joint Select Committee sitting in a judicial capacity to bring influence and pressure to bear upon witnesses to induce them to alter the evidence which they naturally wished to tender, to suppress the truth as they wished to tell it, and which they bad officially placed in the possession of the Secretary of the Joint Select Committee. The Sessional Order relating to witnesses deals with the position in language which, though archaic, has a bearing. We pass this Order at the beginning of every Session. It says: That if it shall appear that any person hath been tampering with any Witness, in respect of his evidence to be given to this House, or any Committee thereof, or directly or indirectly hath endeavoured to deter or hinder any person from appearing or giving evidence, the same is declared to be a high crime or misdemeanour; and this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offender. Since the word "tamper" may raise a qualm in some minds, I may say that Erskine May contains precedents which show that no question of corruption is necessary for the word "tamper" or the validity of the Sessional Order. There was a case in 1809 where a gentleman was proceeded against by the House of Commons on the ground of tampering, when all he had done was to tender advice to a witness about to appear before a Committee of the House. This Sessional Order shows how serious is the view which has always been taken by Parliament of attempts to meddle with witnesses and to defeat the purposes of Parliament, namely, that their Committees should elicit the truth and arrive at right and sound conclusions, and that that purpose should not be defeated by the alteration or suppression of the evidence which witnesses of all kinds may wish to tender. Still more marked is the case when the evidence had actually been placed in the possession of the Secretary of the Joint Select Committee and was privily withdrawn and fundamentally transformed afterwards. I have mentioned incidentally that the bulk of the other members had no knowledge of this, and it is a matter which in their place and their sphere, I should think, they should raise—the acting Leader of the Opposition knows what the position was; he sat there many hours—and they ought to have been informed, and he ought to have known what was going on.

I am concerned, however, this afternoon only with the privileges of this House, and I say most of all that it is repugnant to the proprieties of public business and to the dignity of this Joint Committee, and the credentials of the Committee above all others, considering the importance of a solution of these grave matters—it is repugnant that one or more of its members should be active agent or agents in such a process of transforming the evidence to be submitted to them. Although neither malice nor corruption is imputed, the irregularity and impropriety are so gross and grave, I submit to you, Sir, as to constitute a case of breach of Privilege of the most flagrant character.

What would be said if a tribunal of judges were trying a case about which there was a keen public controversy, and on which very large issues—immeasurable issues—depended, and if one or more of the judges, hearing from the Government that inconvenient evidence was likely to be tendered by important witnesses, sought them out, got into touch with them, invited them to dinner, induced them to transform their evidence and to alter the evidence which they had already manifested their intention to submit to the court—what would have been thought of that? I have known Lord Derby since I was first a candidate for this House, more than 30 years ago, and I share the general respect and good will which are felt for him. He has great influence in Lancashire. The story of how that influence has been built up by a lifetime of service, of kindliness, and of neighbourly hospitality is one of the most honourable and agreeable features in the life of that great and sorely-stricken county. But no personal considerations either of friendship or of respect can possibly condone so monstrous a confusion of functions as arises when members of a Joint Select Committee in fact actually prevent the statement of the real evidence which an important set of witnesses are to give, and when they procure the substitution of weak, meaningless and colourless testimony which passes as representing what those witnesses wish to say.

These are not the days, alas, when Parliament can afford to be too lax and easy going in the assertion of its rights and responsibilities. Things cannot be done in such an easy, quiet, good natured manner. There must be firm assertion of principle and of decorum. Personal considerations must not affect the faithful and uncompromising discharge of public duties by Members of the House, even though the private friendships have to suffer thereby. Persons, however elevated, however virtuous, must be made to understand and to respect the proper limits of the various functions they discharge. No man can sit as a judge upon a tribunal, no man can be cited before all the country as an independent and impartial arbiter, and then, at the same time, go round and manage and whittle down the evidence which is going to be presented to his colleagues and fellow judges. The two roles are absolutely irreconcilable. I shall not, of course, attempt this afternoon to deal with the aspect which these transactions wear when contrasted with the many assurances which Ministers have given, and are always giving, to their own party and to Lancashire that everything will be laid before the Joint Select Committee and threshed out there, or when they are contrasted with their appeal that every one should await the verdict of so authoritative, so impartial and so thoroughly informed a body.

I confine myself to-day solely to the argument necessary to establish a prima facie case of breach of Privilege. I have made a number of statements, some of them amounting to charges, and I shall be rightly asked what evidence I have to prove what I have said. I will deal with the House with complete candour. I am in possession of documentary evidence, which cannot, I think, be challenged, to prove all the facts I have set out, and a good many more. These documents have been given to me without any conditions as to private confidence and secrecy, other than those which may be prescribed by law, but practically none of them are official documents. I have not sought this information, which has been volunteered to me, and what course have I, as a Member of Parliament, but the course which I ask the House, subject to your Ruling, Sir, to allow me to take? As soon as I saw these papers I was sure that I could not discharge my responsibility except by raising the case as a breach of Privilege—and I submit they constitute a breach of privilege—and by laying that case before the Committee of Privileges for their investigation of these matters.

I therefore ask to be allowed to substantiate before the Committee of Privileges the statements which, with great regret on personal grounds, I have thought it my duty as a Member of the House of Commons to make. I have sent notice to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India, who is the officer of the House principally concerned in the matter, directly and personally concerned in the subject of my statements, in order that he might be in his place to deal with the matter should he care to do so. I now ask you, Mr. Speaker, as guardian of the rights and liberties of this House, and of the power and authority of Parliament, to rule that a prima facie case of breach of privilege has arisen and to allow me to move, in suitable terms which I will submit, that the whole matter be forthwith remitted to the Committee of Privileges for their consideration.


The right hon. Gentleman very kindly gave me notice that he was going to raise this question this afternoon, for which I must thank him. Before giving my Ruling upon the question that he has raised, I would like to point out to the House something of which, perhaps, not all hon. Members are fully aware. What I have to decide in the case that has been presented to me by the right hon. Gentleman is not whether a question of breach of Privilege has arisen. That is not for me to decide. The point is whether he himself has made out a prima facie case for a breach of Privilege, and, after listening with the greatest care to what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I give my Ruling that he has made out a prima facie case for a breach of Privilege. Having said that, it is entirely for the House to decide what further, if any, steps it may wish to take.


I beg to move, That the alleged action of Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare and the Earl of Derby, members of the Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform, in influencing the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, or any branch of it to withdraw the evidence they had already submitted to the said Joint Committee and to substitute other altered evidence be referred to the Committee of Privileges. In view of the Ruling that you have just given that a prima facie case has been established, I beg to submit this Motion to the House. It is a Motion in terms which do not prejudge the question of the investigation by the Committee.

The SECRETARY of STATE for INDIA (Sir Samuel Hoare)

I rise with great deference to say how fully I approve of the decision that you, Mr. Speaker, have just given. In justice to myself, in justice to my colleagues on the Joint Select Committee and in justice, particularly, to this House, the credit of which I value far more than my own, I welcome this inquiry. I welcome the chance of proving, as I know I shall prove, that practically every one of those statements just urged as facts by my right hon. Friend is without substantial foundation. My right hon. Friend, in the Motion he has just made to the House, has asked for an impartial investigation. I wish he had shown a little more care and impartiality in the charges he has just hurled at my head. The allegation is that the memorandum of evidence submitted by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce was treated exceptionally in the interests of the White Paper proposals—


I never said anything of the sort.


—that influence was brought to bear by me on the Chamber to alter its memorandum. I do not intend to weary the House with many details. But my right hon. Friend, however, has made many charges, and I cannot let this opportunity pass without making a short answer to the chief allegations which he has urged, and it is necessary, in the interests of truth and clearness, for me to say a word or two about the procedure of the Joint Select Committee itself. The procedure for dealing with memoranda submitted by witnesses in advance of their appearance before the Joint Select Committee is a matter for the Lord Chairman, but I have his permission to say that the memorandum of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce was treated in exactly the same way as all other memoranda. I give that as the first of my points. Let me emphasise that point. In the interests of Members of the Committee who, it will be understood, have a very large number of papers circulated to them, the memoranda submitted by witnesses were not circulated in any case until shortly before the date finally fixed for their appearance before the Committee. The Chamber of Commerce witnesses appeared before the Committee at the beginning of November, and their memorandum was circulated to the Committee towards the end of October. It is true that the memorandum circulated at the end of October was not the memorandum originally sent in by the Chamber of Commerce on 28th June. I make my right hon. Friend a gift of that fact. I do not deny it, and there is no reason, as I shall show, to excuse it.

On 25th October they substituted an amended version. The charge to which we have just listened is that, by some means or other, I brought pressure to bring about a change in the interests of the White Paper proposals. I will explain in a few sentences what happened, and the House can judge of the reasonableness of the charge. I ought to explain that all papers sent in to the clerk of the Joint Committee were available as soon as they were received for the use of any member who asked for them, though, as I have already explained, the memoranda were not circulated to the Committee generally till shortly before the appearance of witnesses. I expressly asked to receive copies as soon as they were received by the clerk. The memoranda, as I think my colleagues on the Joint Select Committee will agree, raised questions of fact upon which it was necessary, in order to save the time of the Committee, that I, as Secretary of State, should be in a position to comment, and this often entailed reference to the Government of India. Any other member, however, could have made the same request that I made, namely, to receive all the documents as soon as they were received by the Committee. In this respect—I did not know what documents were coming in—I received no exceptional treatment whatever.

The original memorandum of the chamber of commerce came to my notice on 7th July. I would ask the attention of hon. Members to that date. I was at that time particularly concerned to foster a project for the settlement of differences between Lancashire and India by direct negotiation between their representatives. The project was favoured by influential parties on both sides. As I will explain later, it has had the best results, but at the beginning of last July it was by no means certain that negotiations, which, I was convinced, were essential to the establishment of good relations between Lancashire and India, would ever take place. Certain passages of the original memorandum of the chamber of commerce seemed to me to be likely to destroy any chance of negotiation. I felt bound to have this brought to the notice of the chamber. My responsibilities as Secretary of State for India comprise much more than a defence of the White Paper, and, so far from apologising for what I did, I should have been guilty of a breach of my duty if I had refrained from doing anything in my power which would promote go important an agreement. In point of fact, my efforts were not successful, and it was not until four months later that representations on the same lines were made by the Lancashire delegation which went to India, and resulted in amendments of the memorandum of the chamber of commerce. The Lancashire delegation was an official delegation sent by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce to negotiate with industrialists in India, and the change in the memorandum in the autumn was due to their action, and it was not due to mine.


Might I ask what was the date on which this decision to change the memorandum was arrived at by the Manchester Chamber of Commerce?


The amended version was sent to the clerk of the Joint Committee, so far as I can gather, about 29th October, and in sending it the chamber of commerce asked for the return of all copies of the original.


Is my right hon. Friend not aware that on 24th October the Manchester mission or delegation in India was telegraphing advising strongly that the original evidence should mot be withdrawn?


I do not think the facts bear that out. I have the telegram. I, myself, prefer, unless my right hon. Friend presses me, not to read these documents here to-day. They must go before the Committee. All that I can say to-day is that my reading of the telegram does not bear the interpretation put upon it by my right hon. Friend.


There is a Member of the House present who can give evidence.


The matter which is now under discussion is one about which, perhaps, I ought to say a word in view of the fact—[HON. MEMBERS: "Wait."] Perhaps it would be better if I were to speak a little later.


Suffice it to-day for my purpose to say that I am certain that when the Committee investigate this aspect of the case, they will find that the facts are as I have stated them, namely, that the eventual alteration in the memorandum was due to the representations of the delegation in India. That being so, supposing my reading of the case is a correct one—and I believe it to be so—the change was made after these communications from the Indian delegation. It was made by the Chamber after full consideration of all the aspects of the problem. It was made at the motion of the Chamber, and it was made in the interests of the Chamber.

I will end this part of the statement by reminding the House of the results which actually ensued. An agreement was reached between the representatives of the manufacturing interests by the method of direct negotiation and they frankly recognised that, although they had competing interests, they also had interests in common. The agreement carried substantial advantages to Lancashire. It has been embodied in a Bill which is now before the Indian Legislature, and, I hope, will shortly pass into law. I am certain that the result would have been very different had the memorandum of the Chamber of Commerce kept its original form. I make no apology in having done what I could to prevent so disastrous a result.

My right hon. Friend said something about a dinner at which I was present and which, he said, might have had some bearing on the question at issue. I have searched my engagement book to see when I last dined at Derby House, and to refresh my memory of what took place at that dinner. I did dine at Derby House last summer. Lord Derby at that time was playing an important and a very honourable part in trying to bring about a rapprochement between the cotton interests in Lancashire and the cotton interests in India, and I was glad to have the opportunity as Secretary of State for India, and so was my colleague the President of the Board of Trade, who was also present at the dinner, to meet many of the representative industrialists from Lancashire, and frankly and freely to discuss the whole position with them. But let the House note the date of that dinner. My right hon. Friend's contention is that at the dinner I used pressure on the representatives from Lancashire to alter their memorandum. The dates are a sufficient answer.

Mr. CHURCHILL rose—[Interruption]—Well, if my right hon. Friend does not wish to answer—


I am ready to answer any question.


Does my right hon. Friend mean to convey to the House that differences between him and the Manchester Chamber of Commerce upon the subject of the evidence they were to give had not developed before the end of June—before this dinner?


I will give dates which fully answer the right hon. Gentleman's question. The dinner took place, so I find by referring to my engagement book, on 27th June. The Committee did not receive the evidence until 30th June. I myself did not know that they had put in any memorandum at all until the end of the first week in July.


I shall submit to the Committee of Privileges for proof that the right hon. Gentleman on 5th May wrote his first letter to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce warning them of the kind of evidence they should not give, that their protest was made to him on 23rd May, and in the letter of protest by the President of the Chamber of Commerce were indicated the heads of the evidence to be offered before the Joint Select Committee.


I should like to refresh my memory.


I think that the right hon. Gentleman had better do so.


I shall have the opportunity of dealing with this matter in the Committee of Privileges. The fact which no one can deny is that neither I nor anybody else had seen the memorandum or the précis of evidence at the time Lord Derby gave his dinner. We had a very interesting talk at the dinner, but the dinner was to talk about the whole position between Lancashire and India and, so far as I remember, no word was said during the whole of that dinner about the evidence or the memorandum that the Chamber of Commerce were intending to put in.

I hope now I have said enough without wearying the House to show that there are two sides to this question, and that I have good answers to the series of ex parte statements made by my right hon. Friend. So far as I am concerned, I am delighted that this inquiry should take place. There is nothing I should desire more than an impartial and detailed investigation into every one of these allegations to which we have listened this afternoon. I am not terrified by the almost mediaeval penalties threatened by my right hon. Friend. I welcome the chance of once again proving that he has found another mare's nest.


I support the Motion that this matter should go to the Committee of Privileges. We have heard two statements, made by old and experienced Members of this House, disclosing great differences upon the facts. The House cannot at this moment sit and judge of the facts and hear a lot of evidence brought up from one side or the other, and I think that the right course for this House now is at once to vote upon the Motion.


I support the Motion upon which it is now proposed to vote, but as a Member of the Committee of Privileges it would be very improper for me to say a single word on this question. Whenever Members of this House make out a prima facie case, and you, Sir, hold that such a case has been made out, the House will unanimously agree that the matter should be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald)

I should like to say one word. The Government thoroughly concur in the Motion, which I believe, is about to be adopted.


In view of the fact that I was a Member of the British Textile Mission in India and that no resolutions which were made by that mission were other than of a unanimous character, and in spite of the fact that I have had no opportunity of consulting the chairman of that mission, I think that it would be right for me briefly to say what in fact happened. There is no dispute that the evidence of the Lancashire cotton textile trade has been altered; the point is, why was it altered? I am speaking here only of what I know. It was not altered—and I use the word "altered" in the sense that any of its essential provisions were withdrawn and none of its essential provisions were withdrawn—by reason of the advice of the members of the British Textile Mission. On the contrary, the advice which was given by that mission, it is only fair and proper to say, was that the essential safeguards should be included. I think that it is necessary to say that, because it might be inferred—I am making no statement now as to why the evidence was altered—that it was by reason of some pressure from the textile mission. Such could not be the truth.

Question put, and agreed to.