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Parliament—Privilege—Political Committee Of The Reform Club—Resolution

Volume 229: debated on Monday 12 June 1876

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Sir, a letter has been received by an hon. Member of this House which I hold to be a gross breach of Privilege. It is in the following terms:—

"Reform Club, Pall Mail, May 26th, 1876.
"Sir,—I am desired by the Political Committee to inform you that a statement has been laid before them (copy of which I enclose) showing the Party votes given by you during the Sessions 1874, 1875, and 1876, to which they would invite your serious consideration, as they are of opinion that it would be unfortunate if any proceedings should have to be taken under Rule 29 of the club.
"I am, Sir,
"Your obedient Servant,
"Acting Secretary pro tem. of the Political Committee of the Reform Club.
"H. W. Ripley, Esq., M.P.
"21, Queen's Gate, S.W."
Sir, I hold that to be a menace to a Member of this House, and a breach of the Privileges of this House, and as such I wish to address you on the point. No one looking at that letter can doubt that it contains a menace, although the menace may not be of great importance itself; but I think that as addressed to a Member of Parliament and a Member of this House it is of great importance to us. Had it not been for the opinion of others of greater experience than myself I should not have presumed to bring the matter forward; but it is our duty to protect Members of this House, and I think that I am justified on that ground in bringing it before the House. I can quite understand why it should not be brought forward by the hon. Member himself, who would naturally be loth to bring forward the names of the members of the Club who are his associates. I have had no communication with the hon. Member on the subject, as I have not the honour of his acquaintance; but I thought it right that the question should be brought under the notice of the House, and I accordingly intimated to him that it was my intention to do so. It has been ruled for more than two centuries that interference with a Member of this House, so far as regards not only his votes, but also his speeches, is a breach of Privilege. In the reign of William and Mary it was so ruled; and a unanimous Resolution of the House was passed in 1733 pronouncing anything in the shape of an obstruction to Members coming to the House or a menace to them in consequence of their behaviour in this House, to be a gross breach of Privilege. I hold that that letter contains a distinct threat to a Member of this House. With the rules of the Reform Club I have nothing to do. If a club chooses to make rules, and a Member joins it, and subscribes to its rules, he must abide by them; he must abide by them so far as to submit to the pains and penalties which they impose. With that I have no right to interfere; but it is a very different thing when Members of this House are written to in this manner, and the privileges of this House are invaded. If an hon. Member be expelled from his Club, which a great writer has said is "the only vengeance of modern society," if he be expelled for his votes, that is a question for him: but when it comes to a threat with respect to specific votes, then I hold that that involves a question of the Privileges of this House. In the case of Sir Robert Peel, who has been described by a great living authority as the greatest Member of Parliament that ever lived, a writer who had made offensive remarks on his speeches was brought before the Bar of that House. Now, Sir, I have merely this to say, and I will endeavour to be brief. If this letter now before us had come into my possession in any manner which was not the most formal, I should not have brought it forward; but the matter has been brought before the House, it has been brought before the public; it has been put into The Times newspaper, not at our suggestion, but by a Gentleman sitting opposite; and I think, under any circumstances, it is absolutely impossible to pass over this matter unnoticed. I have undertaken a disagreeable duty, and in doing so I may have omitted arguments; but I wish to consult the dignity of the House, I wish to follow the precedents of the House, and, if I have done what I have done from a mistaken sense of duty, I hope the House will forgive me. I believe, as an observer and humble student of the law and practice of this House, that I have only done my duty. I have avoided all approach to personality: and as I fear that in what I have done I may have caused political discomfort to some Members of this House, I hereby personally and humbly beg their pardon. I wish to know, Sir, how far I shall be in Order in concluding with a Motion, not that this House do now adjourn, but on the matter on which I have addressed you?

The hon. Baronet having brought before the House a question of breach of Privilege, he is bound to submit to the House a Resolution; and he is also bound to produce for the consideration of the House the very letter which is said to have been written.

I think, tinder the circumstances, I will give my reason for not moving the opinion of this House upon this letter now, because I think it is desirable that more extended consideration should be given to it. I will therefore move that the writer of that letter, Mr. Lewis Morris, do attend at the Bar of this House on this day week.

Does the hon. Member produce the letter himself which has been written? The letter from Mr. Morris should be produced and laid upon the Table of the House. At present there is no Question before the House; but I am prepared to submit the Question to the House if the hon. Baronet, in accordance with the ordinary practice of this House, having made a complaint, produces the document upon which he founds his complaint.

Letter given to the Clerk at the Table, and read accordingly.

Will the hon. Baronet be so good as to hand me the terms of the Resolution which he desires may be put from the Chair?

advanced to the Table, and, having written the Motion, handed it to the Speaker.

The Question is that Mr. Lewis Morris, the writer of the letter now read, do attend at the Bar of this House on Monday next.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That Hr. Lewis Morris, the writer of the said Letter, do attend at the Bar of this House on Monday next, at a quarter past Four of the clock."—(Sir William Fraser.)

Is not the letter that has been produced marked "private," as I believe it is; but, if not, will the hon. Gentleman produce the envelope to show whether that is marked "private?" ["No, no!"]

Before this matter is discussed, it is right that I should state to the House that the hon. Baronet, in the exercise of his discretion, has thought it right to bring before the House a matter which he regards as a breach of the Privileges of the House. No doubt any menace addressed to any Member of this House, in such a manner as to interfere with his freedom of action as a Member of this House, is a breach of Privilege. Whether the menace which has been stated by the hon. Baronet is of such a character, it is for the House to decide.

When I came down to the House this evening, I was not aware that this Motion was to be brought forward by the hon. Baronet. It was by mere accident that the letter happened to be in my pocket, a friend of mine having asked me to show it him this morning. I should have been glad to lay before the House the list of my votes upon which that letter has been written, because, in my opinion, most of these votes have been stated, first by one side and then by the other, not to be Party votes. A great many of these votes have been repudiated by hon. Members on both sides of the House as Party votes. I am very sorry that a matter of a personal character should have been introduced into the House, and I will endeavour in dealing with it to be as short as I can. But I did feel that when that letter was sent to me it was something more than a question of a personal character, and I did send that letter to The times newspaper, so that hon. Members of the House might be able to judge as to the character of the question at issue. I am not here to express any opinion on the subject. I can only say that whatever the intention of the writer was, and whatever the influence of the letter upon me might be supposed to be, it never would weigh one straw or atom with me in any vote I might give. With reference to the letter, I may just further say that on the day following that on which those letters were published, I saw in The Times a letter purporting to be from a member of the Political Committee, in which he stated—of course, I speak from memory, but I believe I am correct—that my proposer and seconder, when I was elected to the Reform Club, had signed some document involving me in a certain political position. I immediately wrote to the Secretary of the Club, asking for a copy of that document, and the only reply I have received is that my request shall be laid before the Committee. But I may add this, that although being a Reformer, an honest Reformer, in the event of those gentlemen who proposed and seconded me being compromised by any action of mine, of course I should feel it my duty to retire from that Club.

said, he, also, had received one of these letters, in the same terms as the letter which had been read to the House. He had also been furnished with a list of the votes he had given during the last two or three Sessions of which the Political Committee of the Reform Club disapproved, and they had called his attention to the votes, holding up the penal consequences which would follow if he persisted in his wicked and perverse course. He had given no answer whatever to that letter, not from any want of courtesy or respect to the Political Committee of the Club, or the Club itself, but because he did not see how he could answer it without compromising the Privileges of that House. The hon. Baronet opposite said that when a man became a member of a Club he was bound by the rules of that Club; but if he felt that becoming a member of that Club, he must vote according to the dictates of the Whig Whips, he should have felt it his duty to retire from the Club. But on a careful examination of the rules of the Club he found the only thing required was for a member to be a Reformer. What was a Reformer? He believed they were all Reformers. That was to say, they all desired to reform what required reform. If the Re- form Club said to a man—"You do not belong to our Party, therefore we wish you to withdraw," nobody would wish to object to that; but when a Political Committee of a Club ventured to send to a Member of Parliament a list of votes given in this House, and called his attention to those votes, making him responsible to the Club for them, it was quite a different thing. If they allowed any authority but their constituents to call Members of that House to account for their votes, they could not tell where it would stop, and it was the beginning of a system which might prove extremely dangerous. He therefore thought that a Member was bound for the safety of the Privileges of the House to deny the right of any one other than his constituents to question his votes or to interfere with his action. The Party votes in his case included a vote as to the Royal Titles Bill. Could that be said to be a Party vote? Another vote was something about the Church of Scotland, in regard to which he voted in deference to the wishes of some Scotch friends. ["Order!"] He should not enter any further into that matter; but he maintained that it behoved the House to put a stop to any interference with the free exercise of the judgment of a Member of Parliament in that House. No doubt in some cases a man's comfort might, to some extent, depend on his belonging to a particular Club, and if he were exposed to expulsion it might exercise some influence on him; but the question was really one of Privilege, and the House ought not to allow the Privileges of its Members to be interfered with.

It is very difficult to define what is a menace which may influence our votes in Parliament. Now, for example, suppose there is an article in a newspaper finding fault with your votes and saying that you have to give an account of them to your constituents, is that a menace? If so, it is a menace we receive almost every day of our lives. Therefore, the House will see that in questions of this kind they must not decide too hastily. I should have been very glad if you, Mr. Speaker, with your high authority, had at once settled the character of this question. My own opinion is, that if you take a technical view of the interpretation of our Rules, you may lay down certainly that this is an interference with our Privileges, as many things are which we pass over, and wisely pass over. But with regard to the act itself, it appears that a Club of much distinction in the political world has a Political Committee as well as a General Committee. I do not know that I belong to a Club that has a Political Committee; and if I did I should view it with some alarm. I believe that Political Clubs form the machinery by which a great deal of money is spent and great offence is given to our friends in the country, with whom they are supposed unnecessarily and improperly to interfere. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster was certainly authorised in bringing this matter before the House; but I am bound to say that he did not consult me on the subject. The letter in question has been written to a Member who certainly is much respected in this House; and I have always understood that the hon. Member for Bradford—who, if he has a bias in his political opinions, is decidedly Liberal—exercises his judgment as independently as any Member of the House. I should say that in the present instance it would not be wise to press this matter. A great indiscretion has, in my opinion, been committed by the Political Committee of the Reform Club, and I think this public notice will prevent its repetition, or that, if repeated, it will probably prove harmless. I should be glad, therefore, if my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster did not proceed with his Motion. If he does, I shall, without giving any decided opinion on the issue before us, meet it by moving the Previous Question.

I have very little to add to the very sensible advice which, in my humble opinion, has been offered to the House by the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. The hon. Baronet the Member for Kidderminster (Sir William Fraser) appears to be anxious to emulate the distinction gained in this House last Session by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. C. Lewis), and to induce the House to follow him in the same not very profitable discussion on questions of Privilege. But I think the House, although it was last Session entrapped by the hon. Member for Londonderry into this rather difficult and delicate question, from which it has not emerged with very great credit, will on this occasion be wiser, and will, without much further consideration, decline to follow the hon. Member for Kidderminster into the course he proposes to lead them. There is only one observation of the right hon. Gentleman opposite the Prime Minister as to which I find it necessary to offer a word of protest. The right hon. Gentleman considers that an act of great indiscretion was committed by the Political Committee of the Reform Club. Now I certainly do not feel myself called upon to defend the conduct of that Political Committee; but I believe that political Clubs are institutions which are of very great convenience and advantage to Members sitting on both sides of this House; and I do not feel convinced, without giving this matter further reflection, that it may not be necessary, under certain circumstances, for these institutions to take steps for preserving their political character in the way that has been done in this instance. It is perfectly true, as the right hon. Gentleman has stated, that, viewed in a certain sense, this may be a breach of Privilege; but the hon. and learned Baronet the Member for Wexford has, I think, taken a very sensible view of the case when he said that he quite admitted the right of the Reform Club or any other Club to indicate to any Gentleman that, as he no longer shared in the opinions which the Club was instituted to promote, they would prefer that he should tender his resignation. I am quite sure from what I have heard of that letter that there was no intention on the part of the Political Committee of the Reform Club to do more than that. The divisions in which the hon. Member for Bradford had taken part were pointed out to him in as polite a manner as possible, in order to show him that his political opinions were no longer in unison with those of the majority of the Members of the Club. I do not know that any more agreeable way could have been taken of communicating to the hon. Member the desire of the Committee that he should no longer remain a member of the Club. Breaches of Privilege like this are committed every day. ["No, no!"] I do not know that a Member's constituents have any more right than anyone else to call him to account; but I fancy there are very few hon. Members of this House who do not receive on many occasions in the course of their Parliamentary career expressions of opinion either of approval or disapproval from the constituency they represent. I trust the hon. Baronet the Member for Kidderminster will not think it necessary to persevere and put the House to the trouble of a division on the question he has raised. If he does I shall vote for the Previous Question, which the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government has announced his intention to move.

said, he could not help thinking that the consciences of some noble Lords and right hon. Gentlemen on the front and Opposition benches were rather severely pricked by the transaction of last Session to which they were so continually referring. He might say with respect to questions of Privilege generally, if the persons who broke the Privileges of the House were a little more careful of their own conduct they would not have occasion to complain of those who took notice of those breaches of Privilege. That was not the first time the noble Lord had thought it proper to refer to the course which he (Mr. Lewis) had taken last Session. It was only right, however, that he should remind the House, in defence of himself, who had been so unnecessarily drawn into that discussion, that many hon. Gentlemen in that House, and many public authorities out of the House, forgot the ground on which he ventured to bring the matter forward. It was in defence of individual private character of an hon. Member which was dear to Members on whichever side of the House they sat. But it was thought proper by hon. Members on the other side of the House to throw a cloud over the question he raised by introducing the question of interfering with the liberty of the Press, while the motive that was actuating him was the defence of the liberty of the subject and private character. He was not going to interfere in the present debate, but he did humbly protest against being made the butt of the noble Marquess, and that upon every occasion when the House got into a difficulty as to a question of privilege he should bring him (Mr. Lewis) forward. He ventured to say further, although the noble Marquess, with reference to the particular subject under discussion, had ventured to inform the House that that sort of thing was done every day, he had had the honour and pleasure of belonging to Political Clubs for 20 years, and he had never known it done in his own case, although he was a great sinner on the point of independence. If the political independence, which the Liberal Party claimed to have initiated, was to exist, the noble Marquess would find in the time to come that it was likely to find several exponents in his own ranks, and the noble Lord, as the Leader of a great and distinguished Party—the Liberal Party forsooth—would not be promoting Liberal principles generally by enunciating such views as he had that day, especially if he maintained that that action on the part of the Committee of the Reform Club, which was only taken once in half-a-century, was taking place every day. He maintained that in that Reformed House of Commons, elected under universal household suffrage, they might look, day after day, and year after year, for more independence of action on the part of Members of that House instead of less. He should feel himself an unworthy Member, with regard to his constituency, if he were afraid of being called in question by the Committee of the Carlton Club, because he had voted against Her Majesty's Government on several occasions. He should feel sorry indeed—and he thought the House and the Government would think less of him than they did—if he were to trail his vote in the dust behind any Government, despite the suggestion of the noble Marquess who might think that such a thing was done every day. The noble Lord could hardly have meant what he said. If such things were done they must have been done in secret and not in public. He thought the hon. Baronet the Member for Kidderminster had done a great public service to both Parties in the House by exposing this action on the part of a Political Club, which, however useful it might be in filling up vacancies in the representations of constituencies, was not the proper tribunal to go through the division lists, and to call Members to account for the votes given in that House.

as a private Member of the House, wished to express his regret that the question had been brought forward, and to say that he did not think there had been any breach of Privilege at all, or even a menace, otherwise it would seem to go forth that whenever a transaction of the sort took place the time of the House might be taken up with it, and an attempt of a Political Club to enforce its regulations would be made the subject of discussion in that House. He would state why, in his opinion, the matter now complained of was no breach of Privilege. If it appeared that this letter had been written for the purpose of compelling a member of the Club, who was also a Member of that House, to vote in a particular way in future, that would be a breach of Privilege; but it must be perfectly obvious to everyone that what was intended was to call attention to the fact that this was a Political Club, and that if a member of it had ceased to belong to that political Party he should also cease to belong to that Club, as his views were no longer in accordance with the views of the members or with the fundamental purposes for which the Club was founded. The Committee, therefore, only said—"Judging from certain evidence with which we supply you"—which could have been the only purpose in sending the votes—"that you are no longer in accord with the political views of this Club, we leave it to your consideration whether you will retire or leave us to take such steps as the situation and the constitution of the Club requires us to take." If that was what was meant, and nobody could doubt that that was meant, how could it be said that this was a breach of Privilege? He must protest against the notion that calling the attention of a Member of that House, who was also a member of a Political Club, to the fact that his political views had changed, and asking him whether he could remain any longer a member of the Club, was a breach of Privilege. He trusted that would be the view taken by this House, and that they might not have such discussions in future.

said, he could not agree with the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. He (Sir William Fraser) maintained that that was not a parallel case with that brought forward by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. C. Lewis) last year. He thought it a special question, and one well deserving the consideration of the House. It did not refer to anything which had been written in a newspaper.

He was anxious to avoid a precipitate expression of opinion by the House on the subject, and that was the reason he had not moved that it was a breach of Privilege. He was satisfied with the discussion that had taken place, and, with the permission of the House, would withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.