§ MR. BENN
I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether his attention has been directed to the admission of Messrs. Bircham and Co., Parliamentary agents, as to the payment of a sum of £116 13s. 6d. secret commission to the late town clerk of Holborn and to their statement that such commission was quite an ordinary percentage to pay; and if, having regard to the fact that this firm acts for other boroughs and also holds the position of Parliamentary agents to the Government, he proposes to take any steps, by Royal Commission or otherwise, to deal with this state of affairs.
§ THE PRIME MINISTER AND FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR, Manchester, E.)
My attention has been called to the circumstances referred to, which have been the subject of correspondence in the public Press. I am advised that the payment in question to Messrs. Bircham and Co., a firm of the highest reputation, ought not to be called a secret commission, and they contend that it is an agency payment, recognised as such amongst solicitors, 58 and paid in the usual way of business. They have acted for the person in question for eighteen years. If, however, this transaction is to be regarded as a commission received by Parliamentary agents, which is disputed, it may perhaps be convenient that I remind the House that commissions of this kind were not only the subject of discussion some years ago in Parliament, but that I they are now engaging the attention of the Lord Chancellor and the Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords, and also of the Incorporated Law Society.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I am afraid that I have given all the information that I have got, but I will make further inquiry if Questions are put on the Paper.
§ SIR ROBERT REID (Dumfries Burghs)
Is there any ground for suggesting that a secret commission paid by Parliamentary agents to the town clerk of a borough could possibly be lawful.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I must ask for notice of that. I do not profess to know anything about it. I am not a practising solicitor or barrister, and the hon. and learned Gentleman is quite as qualified to say what the practice is as I am.
MR. GIBSON BOWLES
Does the right hon. Gentleman know whether in fact this was a commission, and whether in fact it was paid secretly?
§ MR. BENN
I beg to ask leave to move the adjournment of the House in order to discuss a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the payment of £116 secret commission by Messrs. Bircham & Co., Parliamentary agents, to the late town clerk of Holborn, to their statement that such payment was customary, and to the fact that the Government have taken no action in the matter.
I do not think that the matter is urgent. The payment was made last year or even before that, and the cases were brought to the knowledge of the public some months ago. It is not a new matter or urgent in any sense.
§ MR. BENN
May I draw attention to the fact that these gentlemen, or rather a member of the firm, is still a servant of the Government, connected with the Treasury Department. These facts only came to light during the last few weeks at the trial of the town clerk of Holborn. The evidence given at the trial makes it perfectly clear that there can be no dispute about the facts. I respectfully submit that this is a matter which calls for the immediate attention of the House. It is a matter in which municipal morality is involved, and I would ask you, Sir, to reconsider your decision.
It is only by a considerable stretch of ingenuity that it is possible to connect Messrs. Bircham with the Government in any way. I believe that they have occasionally done work for the Government as Parliamentary agents, but they are in no sense servants of the Government, or part of the hierarchy or of the official organisation of the Government. It cannot properly be considered that there is any urgency in the matter. The rule was drawn up to meet certain eventualities and it ought not to be stretched beyond those limits.