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Loss Of Steamship "Titanic" Inquiry (Legal Costs)

Volume 48: debated on Tuesday 11 February 1913

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Mr Scanlan's Vote

I wish to call your attention, Sir, to an incident which occurred in connection with the discussion in Committee last night. The Committee were discussing the Vote of £16,000 for legal expenses in connection with the "Titanic" Inquiry, and after a full discussion the Deputy-Chairman put the Question, "That the reduced sum of £15,900 be granted to His Majesty for the said service." In that Division the hon. Member for North Sligo (Mr. Scanlan) voted in the "No" Lobby. I wish to ask you, on the general question, whether a Member who has a direct financial interest in the question under discussion is entitled to give a vote in this House. I have had an opportunity since last night of going through the different statements of your predecessors during the last 300 years, but I can find no parallel for a case of this kind. I do not propose to bring to your notice the very early rulings of your predecessors, but may I call your attention to a ruling of 17th July, 1811, when Mr. Speaker said:—

"The rule was very plain. If they opened their journals they would find it established 200 years ago. and then spoken of as an ancient practice that a personal interest in a question disqualified a Member from voting."
He then said:—
"But their interest it should be further understood must be a direct pecuniary interest, and separately belonging to the persons whose votes were questioned, and not in common with the rest of His Majesty's subjects or a matter of State policy."
On 11th March, 1892, a Resolution was brought forward in this House to disallow the votes of three Members who had voted in favour of a Grant-in-Aid of the cost of the preliminary survey for making a railway from the coast to Lake Victoria Nyanza. The First Lord of the Treasury, who was Leader of the House at that time, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of London (Mr. Balfour) said:
"The principle which has been laid down from the Chair, and which I think is embodied in most books on this subject, is that no man shall give a vote if his interest in it be of a direct personal character. That principle must evidently be interpreted by the particular occasion on which the House is called upon to apply it."
I pass over all the other rulings and come, Mr. Speaker, to your own ruling when Chairman of Ways and Means, in 1904 particularly, when you referred at some length to the previous rulings of your predecessors on a Motion in connection with the Licensing Bill of 1904. The then Member for Carnarvon Boroughs, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, rose in his place after a Division, and moved that a Member of the Conservative party who had voted in favour of that licensing question in which he was indirectly interested should have his vote disallowed. On that occasion, Sir, you said—in the first place you quoted from previous Speakers' rulings, and then, coming to 1898, you quoted:—
"The rule of the House is well understood. There must be a direct pecuniary interest of a private and particular character, and not of a public and general nature. Where the question before the House is of a public and general nature and incidentally involves the pecuniary interest of a class which includes Members of this House, they are not prevented by the rules of the House from voting."
[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Yes, but I may call the attention of the House to the further point, that when Mr. Speaker, as Chairman, gave that ruling, he did not put the concluding sentence of that 1898 ruling. It was as follows:—
"If it were otherwise, it is obvious that on any proposal for altering the law of rating anyone who is either a landlord or a ratepayer might be prevented from voting."
That was the ruling given by Mr. Speaker in 1898, when there was under discussion by the House the Local Government Board Vote. The hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs went on:—
"I understand that Mr. Speaker's ruling was that where the pecuniary interest was incidental the general rule would not apply."
You, Sir, then said this:—
"I know that view was taken by the hon. Member, and by a great many other hon. Members, but I think he will admit that it is not the universal view. There is also this to be said, that it is perfectly possible that the hon. Member's position will not be affected in any way. The interest of the hon. Member is not of that direct personal character to which the ruling of Mr. Speaker refers."
It is true there have been decisions by your predecessors, particularly in 1899, when the question was raised as to whether the vote given by the Attorney-General in relation to his own salary would not bring him within the scope of this ruling. In reply, Mr. Speaker said that this was a very different question: the Motion to reduce the salary was made merely to raise the question as to the conduct of the hon. and learned Gentleman. Sir Erskine May on this question is perfectly clear. The whole point, I submit to you, turns upon what is meant by the word "incidental." I submit to you that the House has always in these matters been very careful indeed about its ancient privileges, that no Member should vote who had a direct personal interest. Sir Erskine May has said—but I do not wish to trouble the House by going into details. The whole question, I submit, so far as I am able to get into the matter, is what comes under the term "public policy." Does the vote that the hon. Member gave last night come within the term "public policy?" I submit it does not, because there never can be a vote given in this House which must not necessarily be one in which public policy is not involved. Therefore, I respectfully submit to you that according to the usages and long traditions of this House, that any hon. Member who has a direct personal interest—as in this case, an hon. Member having the direct financial interest of £500 in the particular Vote—has no right to vote. The hon. Member ought not to have voted. In conclusion, I may say that I have never spoken to the hon. Member in my life till yesterday. He is quite a stranger to me, and I am not raising this question on personal grounds at all.

I take no exception to the form in which the hon. Member has stated the general ruling. He has collated some of the dicta that has fallen from my predecessors, and added one of my own. I believe that they are all harmonious. I think that the rule as it appears from what he has said, is perfectly clear. I do, however, take exception to his raising the matter now. I think the proper time for him to have raised the matter was in Committee as soon as the vote was given. [HON. MEMBERS: "He did."] Well, the hon. Member made no Motion. A Motion could have been made that the vote of that particular Member should be disallowed. We, sitting here to-day, are not necessarily the same individuals as were sitting here last night and who heard the discussion. We are not in a position to judge of the case which ought to have been treated instanter. In the well-known case which occurred in regard to the directors of the British East Africa Company, it is true that one or two days elapsed between the disallowance of the votes of those individuals, and the time when the Division was taken in which their vote was challenged, but that was by reason of the fact that the Committee in regard to that particular question of the East Africa Company were not sitting. This Vote was taken in Committee with the Chairman of Committees in the Chair and with presumably the interested parties present. I think the hon. Member is out of time in raising the question now. It ought to have been raised at once. If he had made out a primâ facie case the Chairman of Ways and Means, or the Deputy-Chairman, would have allowed the matter to proceed at once and to be settled there and then.

If the matter was settled then by the Chairman it cannot be reopened now. The action of the Chairman precludes it. That information from the hon. Member shows how difficult it is to raise, with me in the Chair, a matter which occurred, and that the hon. Member says was settled last night when the House was in Committee.

With great respect, Mr. Speaker, might I ask you, as the guardian of the rights and privileges of the House, as to whether you might not give an opinion on the general matter, because it is a very serious question; it affects every Member of the House?

I do not know that there is any doubt whatever in regard to the general view. The general view is that a Member is not entitled to vote who has a direct personal pecuniary interest in the subject under discussion.

Yes, Sir; but the hon. Member concerned had not a direct pecuniary interest. I may remind you, too, that every day the Law Officers of the Crown vote for their own salaries. The question has been raised in reference to them, and it has been decided that it is perfectly right that they should vote.

On that point may I just call your attention, before you answer the hon. and learned Gentleman, that your predecessors have stated that the vote given in connection with the salary of the Attorney-General was one which enabled his conduct as Minister to be brought under the review of the House; that is an entirely different matter. On the general question may I say this: that the Deputy-Chairman of Ways and Means prevented me raising the question last night; therefore I had no opportunity to ask him whether the House was or was not entitled to review the matter at any time. I do not wish in any way to reflect upon the ruling given by the Deputy-Chairman. I was merely asking your view on this general question, and having got that I am perfectly satisfied.

4.0 P.M.

There is no doubt that the decisions of the Chairman are open to review, but that must be done upon a proper formal Motion, on which the House is asked to reconsider the decision and, if necessary, to set it aside. I am not a Court of Appeal from the decision of the Chairman in Committee.

May I, by way of personal explanation, say a few words as to what took place yesterday, as my position might be misunderstood? In giving my vote last night in Committee on the Motion for a smaller sum than was proposed in the original Estimate, I believed I was not doing anything wrong, and I maintain I did not do anything wrong, subject, of course, to what you, Sir, may say. My position was this: I was employed, not by the Treasury or the Board of Trade, but I was instructed by a solicitor who represented the National Union of Seamen and Firemen, and at a public inquiry I represented a private client. The Wreck Commissioner, Lord Mersey, in the exercise of the powers conferred on him under the Merchants Shipping Act—and any hon. Member who takes the trouble to read the Act will know he has such powers to award costs against any party appearing at an inquiry—awarded costs against the Board of Trade, and directed, amongst other matters, that the costs of the clients I represented should be paid by the Board of Trade. These costs were paid by the Board of Trade. Of course I would have been paid my fees by my clients in any event. In these circumstances I submit that in giving the vote I did give I was as disinterested as any Member of the House, including the hon. Baronet who raised this point; and, although I was not shaken in my view of what was right in the matter, in order not to have any question, I did not vote subsequently in the Division by which the full amount was voted to the Board of Trade.

After what the hon. Member has said I think it will be quite clear to the whole House, first of all, that the hon. Member has no direct pecuniary interest; and, secondly, that the Deputy-Chairman was therefore right in not allowing the question to be raised.