HL Deb 14 March 1912 vol 11 cc480-2

THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY rose to ask the Lord Privy Seal whether the contents of the Report of the Committee on Irish Finance, or any part thereof, or its general import, have been shown or communicated to any member of either House of Parliament, except Ministers, or to any other person, and, if so, to whom.

The noble Marquess said: Your Lordships will remember that on Tuesday last I placed on the Notice Paper the Question which I have repeated to-day. Although that Question had been on the Paper for several days, the noble Marquess to whom I addressed it declared himself utterly ignorant with regard to any answer he could give. I confess I was greatly astounded at receiving such a reply, and at the same time I said that I considered the reply extremely discourteous. On those grounds I have repeated the Question to-day. I do not think the noble Marquess can again repeat that he is ignorant of the answer, as he has had now, after the warning I gave him, plenty of time to make himself master of the details. If he again thinks it right to plead ignorance I am bound to say I shall consider the ignorance wilful and premeditated. The noble Marquess is a prominent member of His Majesty's Cabinet, and he told us the other day that he will be in charge of the Home Rule Bill when it reaches your Lordships' House. Consequently he must be in a position to have access to every Paper and to make himself master of every fact and detail in connection with that Bill. The Report to which I have alluded is a most important item in connection with that Bill, and I say deliberately that if the noble Marquess again pleads ignorance or does not give me a direct answer, we—and there are many of us—shall believe that this Report has been submitted to Nationalist Members, and that His Majesty's Government are ashamed and afraid to acknowledge or justify that action. I beg to put my Question.


My Lords, I was sorry to observe from the speeches of the noble Marquess and of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ashbourne, the day before yesterday, that in their opinion the reply which I gave to the noble Marquess on that occasion was wanting in courtesy.


I scrupulously avoided that. I said I would not call it unfair, but I could not say that it was fair.


I am afraid that is somewhat faint praise of my attitude on that occasion, but I should be exceedingly sorry to treat any member of the Party opposite either with discourtesy or unfairness. If I desired to adopt that attitude, the last man that I should desire to subject to it would be the noble Marquess opposite. What I said on Tuesday was that in my view the question whether this confidential Paper had or had not been shown to any individual outside the Cabinet had no effect whatever in limiting the responsibility of His Majesty's Government in relation to the financial terms of the Home Rule Bill which will be introduced next month in another place; and in order to impress upon your Lordships that view I added that so strongly was this my conviction that I had not even taken the trouble as a member of the Government to inquire for my own information as to whether any individual had or had not seen the Paper. I was careful to add that, even if I had made the inquiry, its result could have had no effect upon the answer which I should give to the noble Marquess, because for the general reasons which I have given of the history of the affair, and of the private and confidential nature of the inquiry, that fact made it impossible to reply either "Yes" or "No" to the question. On that point I am afraid I can give the noble Marquess no further information. I explained that the inquiry was an informal one for the benefit of His Majesty's Government and to assist them in the preparation of the Bill. The existence of that inquiry was, as the noble Marquess himself pointed out, casually, and surely quite harmlessly, mentioned by my right hon. friend the Chief Secretary—mentioned, it is reasonable to conclude, merely as a piece of evidence that His Majesty's Government were paying close attention to that side of the question. But the inquiry was, as I have said, an altogether informal and confidential one, and it would, I think, involve a complete departure from precedent to discuss whether a particular confidential Paper had been shown to any person outside the immediate circle for which it was prepared, and thereby to invite a discussion as to whether a Paper, the contents of which, after all, are so far not known to the public, ought or ought not to have been seen by any eyes but those of His Majesty's Ministers. I fear, therefore, I have nothing in substance to add to the reply which I gave to the noble Marquess the day before yesterday.


The noble Marquess has nothing to add, but I think he has forgotten his last answer. He stated distinctly on the last occasion that he did not know whether communication had been made of the Paper to any one outside the official list of the Government. That was the point to which I addressed myself when I spoke. Now the position is this. The Government do not recede from that statement. The noble Marquess does not say now whether lie knows or does not know. That is the difference between his answer now and the answer which he gave the other day. Does he know or does he not know now? He has not said that. This is a document obviously of importance. It must play some part, I would say a considerable part, in the statement of the ease by the Prime Minister elsewhere. It must be commented upon here by the noble Marquess who is going to be in charge of the Home Rule Bill. It is obvious that when the debate is opened any side of the House which is informed of the contents of that document will have a considerable advantage. They will know how to deal with it; they will know how to qualify it if it needs qualification; they will know how to rely upon parts that are in their view worthy of being examined from a critical point of view. It will be a distinct asset in the debate to have a knowledge of that document. The noble Marquess's position is this. He can make a solemn oath that would be accepted by everyone that the document was not communicated to any member of the Opposition, but when he is asked a question which covers Mr. Redmond and his Party the position of the noble Marquess is that "where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise."


I understand we are justified in believing that the document has been shown to members of the Nationalist Party and has been refused to the members of the Unionist Party?


I do not think the noble Marquess is justified in believing anything beyond what I have said.