HL Deb 19 February 1903 vol 118 cc259-62

My Lords, I desire to take this, the earliest opportunity open to me, to ask the Lord Chancellor whether it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to re-introduce, at an early date, with the view of its becoming law before the end of the current session, the Prevention of Corruption Bill, the principle of which has already been affirmed in this House, and which aims at making the acceptance, or the offer, of a secret commission a criminal offence. I would further like to express a hope that the noble and learned Lord may see his way to give an assurance to the House that he will not only introduce the measure at an early date, but use his great influence to secure its passage during the current session. Last year I had the honour to serve on a departmental Committee of the War Office on canteen contracts; and the evidence taken in the course of that inquiry disclosed a state of things so grave that I hold it would be a scandal if any delay were allowed to occur before this House took the necessary action to make this form of corruption a criminal offence. I am convinced that the practice of accepting and offering secret commissions is nothing short of a canker attacking the vitals of our commerce. I hold it to be the duty of this House to take such prompt and vigorous action as will rally behind it public opinion of a strong enough character to enable us to force this Bill through the other House of Parliament, notwithstanding the apathy and hostility it may have to encounter there. I cannot believe that a Bill on the subject will meet with any opposition in the other House. I have been requested by the great body of co-operators who, as your Lordships are aware, number 7,000,000 of the population, to ask the noble and learned Earl what are the intentions of the Government with respect to this subject, and to express a hope that the Government will in the interest of honest trading endeavour to secure the passage of a Bill through Parliament.


My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord on the woolsack answers the question that has been put on him, I wish to join in the noble Earl's appeal. Your Lordships will remember that two years ago I myself introduced a Bill of a somewhat ambitious character, which was identically the same as the Bill introduced by the late Lord Chief Justice, Lord Russell of Killowen. When I withdrew that Bill the noble and learned Earl was good enough to introduce a Bill dealing with the matter from a less ambitious point of view, but grappling with the main difficulties. I believe that Bill passed your Lordships' House, though it was not possible, owing to the pressure of public business, to pass it through the other House. Since then I have received, and am constantly receiving, appeals of the same kind as those received by the noble Earl opposite. A mass of material was collected by the late Lord Chief Justice, which goes on gathering in amount from month to month, and I am satisfied that the language used by the noble Earl as to the extent of the evil is in no way exaggerated. I should like to join in the appeal to the noble and learned Earl on the Woolsack to do his utmost to pass, at any rate, a measure which will lay down the principle we contend for and make the way more easy for further legislation.


My Lords, I do not conceal from myself that what has been said by both noble Lords on this matter is well worthy of attention. I have myself received since last year ample proof of the extraordinary development of the system of corruption by what are delicately called commissions, but which are, in truth, bribes to people to betray their duties to their employers. But whether the facts collected and published have not to some extent increased it I do not say; I cannot help thinking, however, that a great many people have learned from them, for the first time, how easy it is by pressure on others to insist on commissions. The fact undoubtedly is that the system has grown extensively, and I quite agree that it demands the attention claimed for it. As far as I am concerned, I am happy to say that I hold in my hand a Bill which, as soon as the other business of the House is disposed of, I propose to ask your Lordships to read a first time. At all events, your Lordships will, at an early period of the session, have an opportunity of discussing and passing the measure in this House. At the same time I cannot forbear from giving this warning, that a Bill which is not considered of what I might call first-rate political importance to either side is not treated with that attention which Bills of a more ambitious character, and appealing more to the spirit of Party Politics, are likely to receive. In the congested state of the House of Commons business, there is no doubt that, there is great difficulty in getting on with a Bill of a character that is neutral, although it is most important socially. I will do my best to push the Bill through the House, and will do what I can to advance the prospect of its becoming law, because nobody feels more strongly than I do the enormous importance of this question.