HC Deb 27 February 1807 vol 8 cc1033-40
Mr. Biddulph

presented a petition from certain electors of Westminster, inhabitants of the parish of St. Martin's-le-Grand, complaining of a breach of privilege, and praying for the interference of the house. The petition was read by the clerk, and stated in substance: "That the petitioners have learnt with alarm and regret, that on Thursday the 19th of February last, the house had, on the motion of the right hon. R. B. Sheridan, postponed the day for taking into consideration the. petition from J. Paull, esq. complaining of an undue return for the city of Westminister That by that postponement, the petitioners were disfranchised during its continuance, and remained unrepresented in parliament, for one of their representatives, sir S. Hood, was abroad in the execution of his professional duty, and the right hon. R. B. Sheridan, being charged with having procured a colourable majority by means. a bribery and corruption, James Paull, esq. their other. legal representative, was by the proceeding of which they complained, prevented from taking his seat in the house. The petitioners were convinced that the motion of the right hon. R. B. Sheridan, esq. was intended and was calculated not to further, but delay the ends of public justice, for they were certain, and could produce evidence to prove the truth of their allegation, that, contrary to the standing order of that house, and to all law and decorum, the said right hon. R. B. Sheridan, had, both by himself and by his agents, tampered with the witnesses, and. by bribes and threats endeavoured to induce them to withhold their testimony, the truth of all which the petitioners were prepared to prove at the bar of the house. That such a transaction was contrary to a standing order of the house, which declared it to be a high crime and misdemeanour. The petitioners therefore demanded and insisted that the house should proceed with the utmost severity to the punishment of the offender; and the petitioners prayed that an, early day might be appointed to prosecute the investigation. of this business, which involved in it not only the rights of the city of Westminster, but the character and privileges of the house of commons."— The hon. gent. said, he hoped he should not be considered as personally responsible for the allegations in the petition. It had been put into his hands by some electors of Westminster, and being an elector of Westminster himself, he could not refuse to present it. He moved that the petition be referred to a committee of privileges.—Mr. Sheridan seconded the motion.

Lord Howick ,

while he allowed that a member who presented a petition was not responsible for the truth of the matter which it contained, was. yet clearly of opinion, that it was his duty to take care that such petition was not couched in improper and disrespectful terms. He was not disposed to quarrel with any inadvertency of expression; but if there appeared on the face of a petition a studied intention to use insulting language, the house would ill consult its own dignity in not severely animadverting on such an attempt. The present petition set out, in a most unusual manner, by complaining of a vote of that house, which, according to the statement of the petitioners, had disfranchised them, and which had deprived their legal representative of his seat. He believed a petition containing such a complaint could not be entertained. He would remark, by the way, that the first example of postponement was given by the noble lord who presented the original petition to the house against the return of his right lion. friend. But if the. petition set out in an unusual tone, the subsequent parts of it were still more extraordinary. He perfectly understood it to be the right of the people to petition that house, and to be the duty of that house to listen to their petitions. But when petitioners insisted and demanded that the house should proceed with severity against one whom they termed an offender, before the investigation of the subject had commenced, they conducted themselves in the most disrespectful manner, and deserved severe reprehension. It was, not his intention, however, to propose any proceeding to the house on the present subject, although he certainly thought it right not to let it pass unnoticed. With regard to the case stated in the petition, he trusted that it would undergo the most minute investigation, and that on whichever side the delinquency should be found to exist, the punishment should fall.

Mr. C. Wynne ,

with all his deference for his noble friend, thought that there would be considerable danger in establishing the precedent of allowing a petition couched in such terms to be received. To the matter no man could object, but the manner was such, that in his opinion the house would compromise its own dignity in permitting such a petition to be referred to a committee of privileges.

Lord. Temple

concurred in the opinion that the door of the house ought to be thrown wide open to petitions; but it had a, right to demand, that they should be couched in decent and decorous language. He did not, therefore, think that the house was bound in duty to receive a petition conveyed in such terms as these.

Mr. Fuller

agreed with the noble lord who spoke last, The words were, demand and insist, and the house could not receive a petition conveyed in such terms as were contained in this—[here the hon. gent. threw the petition on the ground]. The house would always feel it a duty to attend to and redress grievances, but it was not bound to receive petitions couched in language that shewed a manifest intention to insult the house. This he maintained, and cared not a farthing who heard him.

Mr, Whitbread

suggested to his hon. friend the propriety of withdrawing the petition, as the general sense of the house appeared to be against it, and presenting another, couched in more proper and moderate terms. It was not the custom to present petitions against the proceedings of the house in affairs of this nature, and the words insist and demand, were certainly objectionable. But that was not the most objectionable part of it, and he should be inclined to pass over this if there had been nothing else to object to. But the petition insisted that the house should proceed with severity, with regard to one against whom nothing had been proved. If the petition could not, in point of form, be withdrawn, then, supposing it to be rejected, the petitioners had full time to present a fresh petition on Monday. This they would do if they were really in earnest, and only wished for justice. If they did not do this, then it would be clear that they were not in pursuit of justice, but only intended to insult the house.

The Speaker

said there was nothing in point of form which would prevent the withdrawing of the petition.

Mr. Biddulph

stated, that the petition had been put into his hands, and that he had promised to present it, without having looked at it immediately. He had some doubts after reading it, but having shewn it to some friends of his, members of the house, he had been told by them that it would not be improper to present it. As to that part which related to the proceeding of the house, it was rather a narrative than an accusation. The would insist and demand had been caught at in rather an extraordinary way. All that the petitioners insisted upon and demanded was, that the house should, act upon its own orders. This was the way in which he understood them. The evidence he knew nothing of; but he was not prepared to view the petition in that offensive light in which it appeared to some; and therefore did not feel satisfied that he ought to withdraw it, or confess that he was liable to the imputation of carelessness thrown out against him.

Mr. Montague

put it earnestly to the hon. gent. whether it would not be adviseable to withdraw the petition, as by such a prudent proceeding, extremes upon either side would be avoided, the dignity of the house would not be compromised, and the right of petition would not be intrenched upon. He could not agree with the hon. mover, that the words demand and insist, were merely used as urging the necessary consequences in a clear deduction; for what man, for instance, ever similarly applied such words as to insist and demand that two and two made four? Did Euclid, he asked, ever insist and demand that the three angles of a triangle were equal to two right ones? He besought the hon. member to relieve the embarrassment of the house by withdrawing the petition.

General Vyse

did not think that the petition, being once presented, could be well withdrawn. He thought the words objected to were not of such moment, and believed that they were to be imputed to ignorance or inadvertence.

Mr. Lyttleton

was for rejecting the petition. No man was more a friend to the subject's undoubted right of petition than he was; but he was also a friend to the cause of that house's dignity and honour. In rejecting the petition, he thought he not only consulted the respect of that house, but the dignity of the great body that created it. The people suffered from any insult cast upon its representative body, and no portion of constituents should be allowed to violate the common forms of decency and decorum due from all constituents to the commons house of parliament.

Mr. Lamb

did not think it quite fair that an opinion hazarded by him in private, upon a casual glance of the petition, should be adduced as an authority in that house; he should not, however, shrink in public from any opinion he had maintained in private; he did not think the words of the petition so objectionable: the words alarm and regret, in its commencement, were by no means unparliamentary terms, to express the sensations of petitioners produced by any antecedent act of that house; the other words so much complained of, insist or demand, seemed to be misunderstood, they were addressed to the house as in its judicial capacity.

Mr. Sheridan

fully concurred with an hon, gent. as to the necessity of dismissing from their minds every consideration that tended to irritate or influence. He was aware that it was necessary to hear with temper, in order to decide with firmness. He had gone through the election contest without heat, intemperance, or animosity upon his part, and he should not now be hurried to abandon that moderation to which he had been recently so much indebted. He flattered himself that he had the good fortune to have the best wishes of the hon. member who presented the petition; he had been benefited by his intercourse, and had occasionally been honoured with the enjoyment of his hospitality; he did therefore think that the hon. gent. would have done more justice to his well-known candour, if he had in his application to different friends upon the subject, had some previous communication with him (Mr. S.), before he had presented a charge in which he was so per- sonally involved. He was still more at a loss to account for this omission, when he recollected that a noble lord (Folkestone) had done so upon a similar occasion. As to the petition now before the house, he believed he had given the strongest proof in his power of his earnest anxiety, that the prayer of that petition should be promptly acceded to, and that all practicable dispatch should be resorted to, in order to facilitate enquiry the most strict and extensive into the grounds of all allegations complaining of a breach of the privileges of that house, or relating to any conduct of his, touching the late election of Westminster. As to the wording of the petition, he had two reasons for not wishing to reject it on that head; his parliamentary conduct was evidence that he had been uniformly a zealous advocate for the subject's right of petition, and would now be the last man in that house to reject a petition for having indiscreetly made use of hot and hasty words; but he had another and a paramount reason for not rejecting the petition, and that was, that he believed in his soul, that if that petition went to a committee of privileges, it would be to the chagrin and utter disappointment of the petitioners themselves. He argued against the inconsistency of coaxing an hon. member to withdraw his petition, in order not to compromise the dignity of the house, as such solicitation went effectually to compromise it; and denied that the house could ever feel a difficulty in a question that involved the assertion of its honour.

Mr. Robinson ,

though in a very small Minority upon a former night, against the, right hon. gent., felt it now equally incombent upon him to resist the motion that gentleman had seconded; he thought the language of the petition extremely indecorous. The petitioners complained of their being disfranchised, and the two reasons upon which they grounded that opinion, were truly extraordinary. The first was, that one of their representatives was engaged in the service of his king and country, and could not attend to his duties as a senator. This circumstance, if it constituted either disqualification or disfranchisement was well known to them at the time they elected him for Westminster. The other reason was, that in consequence of the decision of this house, their legal representative was prevented from immediately taking his place in this house. If this could be considered as a cause of disfranchisement, it most certainly existed, previous to the decision of the house, which enlarged the period for taking that return into consideration. Under the impression he had, he should conceive it his duty to vote for the rejection of the petition, unless it was withdrawn.

Mr. Adam

submitted to the judgement of the house, whether the present petition did not require alteration? It was universally admitted, that the right of petitioning was certainly inherent in the constitution; but it was equally a matter of fact, and generally understood, that the member should attentively consider, and be responsible for the allegations of the petitions which he should think it his duty to present. The first question was, whether the present petition should be referred to a committee of privileges? In the mean time, another question had arisen, with respect to certain indecorous terms inserted in it. The opposition was not to the substance or mode, with an intention of refusing its prayer, but was solely directed against the language which it breathed, as being inconsistent with the dignity and forms of the house. If the object was to obtain full and substantial justice, he recommended to the hon. gent. to withdraw it for the purpose of alteration, pledging himself to bring it forward on a future occasion. By such conduct the dignity of the house, the right of petition, and the privileges of the people would each be respectively preserved.

Mr. Biddulph

declared himself unwilling to trespass on the time of the house, but he found himself called upon to reply to some observations which had fallen from hon. gentlemen on the other side. He could assure one hon. member (Mr. Lamb), that he had not the remotest idea of an improper allusion to him, nor did he make any incorrect use of the authority of his name. The right hon. gent. (Mr. Sheridan) had charged him, in a way more or less gentlemanly, of a want of frankness, in not communicating his intention with respect to this petition. On this point he could only say, that the necessity never occurred to him. Was it a new case, and had it not been previously brought before the house, he certainly would have apprised the right hon. gent. With respect to the petition itself, he should consider himself a very bad advocate, were he to persevere in pressing it, contrary to the general feeling of the house; but he might be allowed to state his opinion, that it was the strong expression of unlettered men, without any view of insulting the dignity of that house, or trenching on its privileges. To such a class of men, he conceived it his duty to give every facility of laying the statement of their grievances before the legislature. He should now move to withdraw it, if the right hon. gent. who seconded the former motion, was inclined to coincide.

Mr. Sheridan

said, he was forced to yield his consent, more to comply with the wish of the house, than any inclination of his own. The petition was accordingly withdrawn.

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