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East St Pancras (Representation)

Volume 65: debated on Tuesday 21 July 1914

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During question time to-day I raised the question of the hon. Member for East St. Pancras (Mr. Martin), and as to the right of the House to demand that Members should attend or get leave of absence if they do not attend. I gave notice to the Prime Minister, who incidentally is First Lord of the Treasury, that I would raise the question to-night, and I see he is not here. I certainly think that when the Prime Minister moves with a light heart the Suspension of the Eleven o'clock Rule, he might at least endeavour sometimes to be present. The point I wish to raise is one in which a serious principle is involved. For the first time we have had it to-day from a Minister of the Crown that hon. Members can absent themselves for as long as they like, indeed for an indefinite period, without any effort on the part of the Leader of the House to enforce their attendance or to ask on what grounds they are absent. It is an important principle, because for the first time since we have had payment of Members it has been said that there is no need for Members to ask leave of absence. Of course, cases arise when Members are unable to attend the House. That must frequently happen through ill-health or otherwise. But now that we have payment of Members unconditionally—owing to the way in which it has been introduced—either some provision should be made to see that Members do not leave the House for an undue time or else the old Statute of Henry VIII. should be enforced. The hon. Member for East St. Pancras (Mr. Martin) has openly given it out that he has left the country and does not intend to return to take part in these Debates or to do anything to justify his continuing the office of Member for East St. Pancras. He stated recently that he had no intention of returning, and he added,

"The Government are going straight to destruction. They are too weak and too divided in opinion to deal firmly with any question."
Apparently they are so weak and divided that they are afraid to deal with the hon. Member's own question, because, according to the paper, he stated that he had offered to send in his application for the Chiltern Hundreds, but had left the matter in the hands of the local Radical Association to deal with. I think the Treasury Bench ought to take some steps to see that this important constituency is not disfranchised. At any rate some explanation is due to the House for their having done nothing in the matter. If the Report is not accurate it ought to be denied. If the hon. Member for East St. Pancras has left the country, does not intend to return, and has not placed his resignation in the hands of the Whips of his party, I think some steps should be taken to enforce his attendance here or see that he does not receive his salary. Hon. Members opposite have in years past been very horrified if any hon. Member on this side was not regular in his attendance. Cases have been frequently raised as to the absence of Members abroad or otherwise. I notice that in 1898 the question was raised, and the then First Lord of the Treasury (Mr. Balfour) said:—
"In answer to my hon. Friend I have to say I understand he has omitted one important phrase in the Act of Henry VIII., which is as follows:
'That those Members who absent themselves from Parliament without licence of the Speaker of the House shall be entered in the book of the Clerk of the Parliament kept for that purpose, and deprived of their wages.'
The Statute is evidently directed against those Gentlemen who took the pay of their constituents and did not do the work their constituents thought they ought to do."
[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear."]

If hon. Members will wait for the end of my quotation they can then cheer!
"It is evident that, as our constituents no longer pay hon. Gentlemen, therefore that particular obstacle has lost its cogency."
If that is so and the First Lord of the Treasury had been here to-night he could not have made the same statement as the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Balfour) did then, because now we receive a salary. I do not think it is an unreasonable thing to say that so long as we do receive salaries there should be some effort on the part of the Leader of the House to see that hon. Members do attend or give some reason for non-attendance. I hope someone on the Government Front Bench will be able to give us some satisfactory explanation.

I desire to say a few words in support of the contention of the hon. Member for Eastbourne. I want to recall the broad fact that in the older and more honest days of Henry VIII., when Members received their salaries direct from their constituents, the House thought it necessary to see that the constituencies got their money's worth. Under the present dispensation of a Radical Government we have had a Resolution of this House passed giving payment to Members without imposing any conditions whatever as to their attendance. While the constituencies themselves were the paymasters the House thought it necessary to see that they got something for their money; now, without consulting the constituencies, we have taken their money without any obligation of services rendered. At the present moment we have an occasion on which an hon. Member of this House is leaving, not this House nor his constituents, but the country, and stating publicly that he has no intention of returning during the currency of the present Parliament. He also made some candid statements as to the Government which he had been returned to support. Let that pass. Unless this House reverts to the sound and honest doctrine of services rendered for money received, we are placing ourselves in a position of inferiority altogether, and we are practically doing the confidence trick—taking the money of the taxpayers of this country, without even seeing that the House looks after the attendance of Members in the way they used to do when the electorate themselves were directly responsible.

Owing to the appreciation of the circumstances of the case, such as we might expect from him, the hon. Member for Eastbourne has raised a case which, were we to take examples from the whole House, and explain them, is far more applicable to his side.

I will give the case of the hon. Member for Eastbourne. During the last two and a-half years, in which the Member for Eastbourne has drawn from the State £1,000, he has voted in 263 Divisions out of 687. On his own principle, the payment ought to be proportionate to the attendance, and upon that principle he would be entitled to a sum of £400.

And being, as we all know him to be, a thoroughly conscientious Gentleman, and convinced that on principle he ought not to retain or draw his salary for work he has not done, I have no doubt he will pay to the Chancellor of the Exchequer the £600 difference. It so happens that the hon. Gentleman who makes this objection has voted 263 times in the last two and a-half years, whereas the hon. Gentleman against whom he brings the charge, in the same period, has voted no fewer than 415 times, so that if there is anything due, there is a much larger sum due by the hon. Gentleman than by my hon. Friend. I think hon. Gentlemen opposite have been peculiarly unfortunate in raising this subject at all. I have here an analysis of the average attendance of hon. Gentlemen sitting on the opposite side of the House and an analysis of the attendance of my hon. Friends sitting on this side of the House. The only means we have of judging is by the Division lists, and I find from an analysis of the Division lists that the average number of Divisions in which hon. Members opposite took part in the last year was 36 per cent., while the average number of Divisions in which my hon. Friends on this side took part was 58 per cent. We are discussing now, not the reason for voting, but the propriety of taking salaries when we do not vote. I am speaking now of Divisions which are trials of Parliamentary strength when questions of principle arise. I find that on this very day on which the hon. Gentleman opposite raises this question when such an important matter as the Finance Bill of the year is discussed, that in the four Divisions that took place from five o'clock until eleven minutes past nine o'clock, in the first, 170 hon. Members opposite voted out of 287, in the second, 184 out of 287 voted, in the third, 105 out of 287 voted, and in the fourth, 105 out of 287 voted. [An HON. MEMBER: "How many abstained?"] The hon. Member himself and the whole of the party opposite on the record of the day have been convicted of the offence of drawing a salary for work which they did not do. There is an old maxim that he who comes into Court should come with clean hands—I do not mean his physical hands; but if they are as dirty as his he should not raise a question of this kind.

The Home Secretary has indulged us with a speech which is of the kind one would expect from him. I do not believe that there is a single Member on the bench where he sits or behind or below him who does not think that his speech was not marked by the utmost insincerity. He knows very well that if there is one fallacious test of attendance it is the Divisions. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] It amuses me that any hon. Member, even though he be a Private Secretary to one of the Members on the Front Bench, should pretend that that is the case. [An HON. MEMBER: "Tell that to your constituency."] If the hon. Member suggests that I would not say that to my own Constituents, all I have to say is that I am quite ready to do so. I can prove to hon. Members that on some occasions there have been as many as twenty-five or thirty Divisions in a single day in which hon. Members opposite have voted, and there are an equal number of hon. Members on this side of the House who have attended day after day for a fortnight or three weeks when there have been only some three or four Divisions. Nobody can deny that. If that is the case, how ridiculous it is to say that the number of Divisions is any test of attendance, when Members may be here day after day listening to the Debate and making speeches, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has very often done, of a very unpleasant character, unpleasant to right hon. Gentlemen opposite, who, in the term of their Ministerial office, have done so much of which they ought to be ashamed if they are not. The whole defence set up by the Home Secretary can be shown to be utterly fallacious and insincere. The real truth is that they are preventing a by-election taking place in East St. Pancras at the present moment. Perhaps one of the Whips of the Liberal party will be able to say whether any application for the Chiltern Hundreds has been made by the hon. Member for East St. Pancras (Mr. Martin).

The Noble Lord seems to imagine that you apply to the Liberal Association for the Chiltern Hundreds.

I imagine nothing of the kind, but hon. Members have to apply to an association, otherwise they have no chance. I am glad to get that distinct statement from the Chief Whip to the Liberal party that no such application has been made. If such an application had been made and had not been granted, it would have distinctly aggravated the case. As it is, the case is quite bad enough. The fact that a Member announced to the papers his intention, without any excuse of ill-health, or of a desire to travel, or of anything of that kind, of leaving the country for good, and did not intend to return to Parliament, should have afforded an opportunity to the Chief Liberal Whip to have suggested to him that it would be more suitable and more seemly if he applied for the Chiltern Hundreds and vacated his seat in Parliament. I should like to ask the Chief Whip whether he has taken any action, because, if he has not, then I think he has been guilty of a distinct dereliction of his duty to this House. These are the plain facts of the case, and they are not going to be swept away by any specious accusations of the Home Secretary against this side of the House, since no one knows better than he does himself how fallacious his arguments are, and how they are only calculated to please right hon. Gentlemen sitting beside him and hon. Members behind him, who are quite indifferent to the fact that an hon. Member may leave this House without any other excuse than merely his own good will and pleasure, and draw a salary and not attend, and who think that they have to deal with an ignorant electorate who do not realise the real facts of the situation, and are going to be taken in by the absurd and specious defence of the Home Secretary.

I always experience a peculiar pleasure in being lectured by people of superior character. When these people come forward and boast of their great achievements, I feel humiliated, but when on reflection, and after looking into their record, I find that they are proved frauds, then my own estimation of myself rises. I have had that happy experience this evening, especially during the speech of the Noble Lord. He has with wonderful elevation of attitude poured scorn on the idea that records of Divisions here could be taken into consideration at all. I do not wonder at that, because, on looking into his record, which, fortunately, I am able to give the House, I find that in the first two Sessions of this Parliament there were 1,056 Divisions, and the Noble Lord was present at 454 and absent from 602.

The Noble Lord was absent for something like 200 more Divisions than the hon. Member for Eastbourne. When you get hon. Members and Noble Lords with records of this kind raising their solemn and undignified protests against men like the hon. Member for East St. Pancras, who has only been away from this House something like a fortnight, and has previously attended regularly to his duties, I feel that the chosen spokesmen of the other side are of a very hypocritical character.

I should like, in the first place, to challenge a statement of the Noble Lord opposite. I had a conversation with the hon. Member (Mr. Martin) recently and he told me that owing to some difference in the value of land in Canada he had decided to go back. He has some undeveloped land in the Dominion. He pays taxes upon it. He says it is right that he should do so, and one of his principal objects in coming into this House was to be found in the hope that legislation of that kind might be introduced here. He told me further that the obstruction, particularly on the Front Bench below the Gangway opposite, had had such an effect upon him that one of two things were bound to happen. Either he must remove from his seat below the Gangway to behind the Speaker's Chair, or he must go back to Canada. He could not stand the sight of those Noble Lords continually obstructing. He said he was sitting there day after day looking at the Noble Lords wasting his time in defending their own vested interests, and he longed for those happy days when he was Premier of a small Dominion across the water. He said that there they talked business, and did things in a businesslike way; that they paid no respect to titles, and followed business methods. But he assured me that he should, if possible, come back for next Session and attend this House again. The reports the hon. Members have read are very unfair to my hon. Friend. In my view, when he gets back to Canada among the breezy Colonials, where there is no Established Church and no hereditary landed interest, he will find that he wants to stay there and not come back into an arena like this. He assured me that on several all-night sittings the sight of the three Noble Lords sitting opposite was very upsetting; he used, in fact, a term about them which I should not like to repeat. But he told me they had more than exhausted his patience, and that would account for some of the erratic votes which he had given in this House. He had listened to their arguments, and had become so confused he did not know the difference between the Aye Lobby and the No Lobby.

I think that in the circumstances it comes with very ill grace from the Noble Lords opposite to make this attack. They mesmerised him night after night and induced him to give these erratic votes, and now they round upon him in this fashion. I shall feel it my duty to communicate to him the ingratitude of the Noble Lord the Member for Thirsk, and I shall assure him that the Noble Lord does not represent the House in the sentiments which he has expressed to-night.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter before Twelve of the clock.