Orders of the Day — Trade Facilities and Loans Guarantee Bill.

– in the House of Commons on 8th December 1922.

Alert me about debates like this

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

Photo of Mr Herbert Asquith Mr Herbert Asquith , Paisley

Although I am not quite certain whether I am strictly within the rules of Order, I trust I may be allowed to say one or two words which arise specifically upon Clause 3 of this Bill, the one which deals with the loan to the Sudan. I am informed that, at a late hour last night, when comparatively few Members were present, it was suggested, in regard to this provision in the Bill, that I, who had the honour of introducing a deputation to the Foreign Secretary upon the subject some months ago, had been actuated in the course I took by personal and indirect motives and interests. During 40 years of public life I have never known anybody on the Floor of this House who had the courage to make that insinuation, and I confess, when it was brought to my notice this morning, my inclination was to disregard it and treat it with contempt. But—unfortunately, it is one of the conditions under which we live—there are people outside who, not illegitimately, think that, when statements of this kind are made on the Floor of this House, they must be made with some measure of knowledge and some sense of responsibility. In this case, I need hardly say that I had no notice such as is prescribed by the inveterate and honourable traditions of Parliament, or I should have been here to deal with the matter at once, and the House will probably allow me, in view of these conditions, to say two or three words upon the matter.

I have received more deputations in my life than almost anybody, and I have never attended one before, which I can recollect, and if I made an exception to a very old standing practice on my part, I tell the House quite frankly it was for two reasons. In the first place, it was the Government of which I was the head which carried through Parliament the original loan to the Sudan for this purpose, a loan which provided the fund under which this great scheme, vital to the cotton industries of this country, was-initiated and reached a certain stage of development. The money was entirely expended. The scheme was incomplete. It was absolutely necessary, unless all that we had spent and guaranteed wag to be thrown away and the whole thing rendered nugatory, useless, and indeed worthless for all practical purposes, that there should be some further assistance given by the Government of this country, not to any company, not to any syndicate, not to any body of private undertakers, but to the Sudan Government itself, which alone was responsible, both for the repayment of principal and the payment of interest and the supervision of the whole thing. I felt a special responsibility in that matter, and I thought it entitled, indeed required, me to depart from my usual practice.

But I had another reason, namely, that I went there at the instance and request of my constituents at Paisley, whose principal industry is dependent upon, and its prosperity in the future will largely be measured by, the extension that can be given to cotton growing, and particularly to cotton growing of the kind of cotton that is grown in Egypt and the Sudan. I went as the spokesman of the electors of Paisley, which is hardly less interested in the matter even than the great cotton industry of Lancashire, which was represented on the same deputation by Lord Derby and by my right hon. Friend the late Leader of the Labour party (Mr. Clynes)—a curious trinity of conspirators to impose upon the Government and the Parliament of this country a corrupt bargain in the interests of a selected set of capitalists and profiteers. I think I should have been failing in my duty to the constituents who had done me the honour to send me here to represent their interests, great industrial community as they are if I had forborne to comply with their request. That is the whole matter. I need hardly say—it is humiliating to have to do it—that I had not, and have not, and I never have had, and I never shall have, any interest, direct or indirect, in this matter, except that of redeeming the obligation of the British Government, of saving the national Exchequer, and of promoting the interests of the greatest of our textile industries.

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

May I crave the liberty of a few moments of the time of this House to make a personal observation or two upon the statement we have just heard from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith)? May I say, in the first place, that since the early hours of this morning, when the observations to which he has referred were made, I have learned that no references, direct or indirect, which reflect personally upon any Member of this House may, under Parliamentary etiquette, be made, without first acquainting that Member of one's intention to do so? I, therefore, take the earliest opportunity of saying I regret that I did not first of all acquaint the right hon. Gentleman with my intention to raise this matter. But I should like to repeat, what I said in the early hours of this morning, that the initial introductions of the right hon. Gentleman's name and authority for this Sudanese cotton-growing scheme in this House were not made by me, were not made from these benches, but were repeatedly made by and on behalf of the Members of His Majesty's Government, and they were sheltering their scheme behind the fact that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley had led or introduced this very important deputation which had so impressed His Majesty's Government. My observations were made in reply to that point, after I had repeatedly attempted to get from His Majesty's Government some particulars of the financial basis and the financial operations of this scheme. I do not understand that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley controverts in any way whatsoever any statement of fact or question of fact made inferentially in the questions I addressed to His Majesty's Government this morning. No single statement of fact, no single figure, has he attempted to controvert in any way. [An HON. MEMBER: "He has repudiated the insinuations!"] I do not propose to take up the time of this House by repeating in detail the questions I made last night, unless the right hon. Member for Paisley desires that I should do so.

Photo of Mr Herbert Asquith Mr Herbert Asquith , Paisley

It is a matter of perfect indifference to me.

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

The right hon. Gentleman says it is a matter of perfect indifference to him, but that is neither here nor there. I should like to say that when I learned this rule of Parliamentary etiquette this morning, I sent a letter to the right hon. Gentleman saying that I understood this question could be raised again upon the Second Reading of she Consolidated Fund Bill on Wednesday next, and that I proposed, if possible, to repeat those questions, and if he cared to be present he could do so. There are only two points that I wish to make further. In the early hours of this morning an hon. Member opposite, when I was reading out the list of the extra ordinary dividends made by the Sudan Plantation Syndicate, said that I did not give the figures for last year because they had earned no profits. I replied that I did not give the figures because. I did not know what they were, but I have them now. For last year the profits made by this Syndicate were no less than 35 per cent., and I desire to add further to the information I conveyed by questions this morning the fact—at least, my information is—that the successful contractor in this new, big scheme in the Sudan, amidst these tremendous profits of 35 per cent., with the British Government Exchequer handing over £3,500,000 to extend and develop—the successful contractor, curiously enough, is a firm which is called Pearson and Sons, with which, I under stand, a prominent supporter of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley is—

HON. MEMBERS:

"Oh, oh!"

Photo of Mr John Jones Mr John Jones , West Ham Silvertown

Go on, give them the facts.

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

If you want the facts, I will give them. You think it does not matter. Lord Cowdray has a financial interest also in Pearson's. Further, let me say that at a general meeting of this company, held on the 22nd November of this year, the chairman informed the shareholders that they had been invited by the Sudan Government to co-operate with them in a new and a fresh development, which does not yet appear to have come before this House, but which, doubtless, will come before this House on some future occasion, and a new company has been formed to exploit a further great cotton district. Why does the old company not suffice? Why form a new Kassala Cotton Company.[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]

Photo of Mr John Jones Mr John Jones , West Ham Silvertown

Because you want jobs for your friends.

Photo of Mr John Whitley Mr John Whitley , Halifax

I hope the House will allow the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Johnston) to make his speech.

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

Why should this new company be surreptitiously created? In this company, the firm we have been discussing holds the preponderance of the 6hares. They estimate their profits to be £330,000 per annum—one-third of a million pounds per annum net profit. Yet they come to the British Government, and receive from the British Government a £3,500,000 guarantee further to exploit the cotton resources of the world. This £330,000 is estimated upon the assumption that the cotton will be sold at 10d. a 1b. As a matter of fact, the present price of Egyptian cotton is 1s. 5½d. per 1b. Every 1d. over 10d. per 1b. means £31,000 per annum extra profit to the syndicate. The chairman said to his shareholders, "We are to-day only in our infancy." If they can make 35 per cent, in their infancy and receive £3,500,000 of a guarantee from His Majesty's Government, what will they be able to do when they grow up into ripe old age? May I conclude with a personal note? I should like to express my personal gratification and, I am sure, the gratification of the whole House, irrespective of party, to have heard from the1 lips of the right hon. Member for Paisley that he has no direct financial interest——

Photo of Captain William Benn Captain William Benn , Leith

Why do you not withdraw?

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

—that he has no direct—[HON. MEMBERS: "Or indirect!"]—personal financial interest in this Sudan Syndicate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw!"]

Photo of Mr John Simon Mr John Simon , Spen Valley

I desire, with your permission Mr. Speaker, and the permis- sion of the House, to put these two questions. The first question is, I should like to understand whether the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken repeats his allegation of corruption, or withdraws it. I have one other sentence, and it is my second question. I should like to know whether the Leader of the Labour party, who recommended this proposal of the Bill to the House, supports or repudiates the suggestion which the hon. Gentleman has made?

Photo of Mr Ramsay Macdonald Mr Ramsay Macdonald , Aberavon

I am sorry that my right hon. and learned Friend who has just sat down should have put the second question. I know my duty to this House quite as well as my right hon. Friend does. The discussion—the very painful discussion—to which we have just listened is one of those unfortunate things which, I am afraid, may happen again and again while the Government is subsidising, either directly or indirectly, either by cash or by guarantees, private exploiting companies. The case is perfectly clear, that the Sudan Government has entered into an arrangement with this Sudan Company I do hope, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Johnston), having made the statement he has, will carry it another stage. He owes that to the right hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith). It is perfectly true, and within the recollection of right hon. and hon. Members who heard my hon. Friend's speech last night, that the statement he made was that in this particular company, the transactions of which have been placed in our hands—his statement was that in connection with that company a relative of my right hon. Friend was connected. Now I am perfectly certain that if, upon that ground, any of us is to be directly charged with motives and interests which would move us to go to the Government as a deputation, then I do not know where any of us is going to stand. The Sudan Company is one thing, and, so far as that is concerned, I hope my hon. Friend will withdraw absolutely nothing. Its connection with that deputation, and with the interests of the right hon. Member for Paisley, is a totally different thing, and I think it is due to this House that my hon. Friend makes it perfectly clear that anything he has said that might reflect upon [An HON. MEMBER: "Did reflect!"]The hon. Member who interrupted me, if I may say so with respect, has really made a mistake in the interpretation of the English language. The expression "that might reflect" is far stronger than the expression "that did reflect." If I had said, "any expression which 'did': reflect" upon my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley I should have used a much narrower form of words than the expression which I deliberately used, which was "might" reflect. I want to make it perfectly clear, and I want it perfectly straight. After the statement my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Johnston) has made, I think he owes a duty to the House, which I am sure he will wholeheartedly fulfil, and make it just a little clearer that he withdraws any sort of imputation that might be associated or that was associated with what was said last night. My hon. Friend appears here for the first time. Those of us who have been longest here know how very difficult it is to observe with the most perfect rectitude the relationships that exist between hon. Members on all sides of the House. Therefore I am perfectly certain that the House will view with fairness and generosity the incident, the rather painful incident, that has just taken place.

HON. MEMBERS:

"Withdraw, withdraw"

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

In response, Mr. Speaker, to the appeal made by my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour Party

HON. MEMBERS:

"Oh, oh!" and interruption.

Photo of Mr John Whitley Mr John Whitley , Halifax

The Question is, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."