HC Deb 01 May 1815 vol 30 cc1002-14
Sir William Curtis

said, he had a petition to present from the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and Livery of London, in Common-hall assembled, which might appear, in some respects, of an extraordinary nature. He was bound in duty to his constituents to present it, and it was couched in terms that might probably ensure its reception by the House. It was also his duty to say, that there was scarcely a sentiment contained in it in which he concurred. The meeting was, however, called in the constitutional and proper way. The petition was a kind of omnium, embracing a great variety of matter; one part of it related to the Property-tax. He moved for leave to present the petition.

The Speaker

observed, that the hon. baronet having stated that the Petition was in part against a tax now pending, it could not, consistently with the forms of the House, be received.

Sir W. Curtis

said, that he did not know whether it could be said that the Petition was exactly directed against the Property-tax.

The Speaker

thought it advisable that the hon. baronet should read the part which he conceived might prove objectionable.

Sir W. Curtis

then read part of the prayer of the Petition, stating, that it was with feelings of indignation the petitioners had perceived his Majesty's ministers had proposed to revive an odious tax, and praying the House to stop the course of a weak, rash, and infatuated Administration in their mad career, and preserve the peace and prosperity of the nation.

The Speaker

said, that it was now for the House to judge from what they had heard, whether the Petition was for the Property-tax or against it.

The question being put for bringing up the Petition,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he thought the House had heard enough to induce them to reject it.

Mr. Horner

observed, that the rule of the House ought only to be applied practically to the case for which it was intended. Coming from so great and respectable a body—[A laugh on the Ministerial side of the House]—coming, he repeated, from a most numerous and respectable body, the Petition ought not to be rejected on a mere point of form, unless it came strictly and indisputably within the rule. The prayer of the Petition said nothing regarding the Property-tax, and only required that the House should take the matters stated in the body of the instrument into consideration. The prayer of the Petition was against his Majesty's Government, who were termed weak, rash, and infatuated. The Property-tax was stated as one of the complaints against them, but it was not made the substantive object of the Petition. If the citizens of London had petitioned against the Property-tax, they would have prayed to be heard by counsel, and that the Bill might not be passed into a law.

Mr. Bathurst

was willing to give the petitioners all the respect they deserved. He did not think that the words employed at all warranted the construction put upon them by the hon. gentleman. The object was not so much to complain of ministers, as of the tax which was mentioned, eo nomine, as an intolerable grievance. The prayer was, that the matters above stated should be considered, and one of those matters was the Property-tax.

Sir John Newport

referred to the memorable dictum of the Speaker on a former occasion, that the doors of the House ought to be opened wide for the admission of petitions, and contended that this great object ought not to be defeated by technical objections. Complaint was against ministers for proposing the Property-tax, and not specifically against that measure, which was still pending; the petitioners required that the country should be protected against the consequences of the misconduct of a weak, rash, and infatuated Administration. It was not difficult to discover the motive for the opposition now given—it was to screen Government for a time against the indignation of a large and most respectable body of persons who were convinced of its incapacity.

Mr. Serjeant Best

contended, that the Petition expressly prayed the rejection of the Property-tax Bill—[A cry of 'No, no!']. Whether it did or did not, was a matter of very little consequence, since the instrument could not be received, as it was couched in the most disrespectful terms—the first two lines contained a most gross and infamous libel upon the House and upon the constitution. The individuals who have signed it must have known that it could not be received; and he could not conceive that it was the duty of any member to present a petition designed to insult the House. He was sure the House would not permit it to lie on the table.

Mr. Whitbread

said, that the learned member could not be sure what the House would do with the Petition, till they had come to a vote. The learned member had not yet read the Petition, and yet he had termed it a gross libel. He hoped to find him mistaken. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had become very humorous about the city when they turned against him: at other times they were found very useful both by him and the worthy alderman. The prayer was to stop the career of ministers, which occasioned grievances, and would bring on the Property-tax. Nice and fine distinctions should be avoided respecting the receiving of Petitions. The livery were most unhappy in their representative, who said he was bound to present the Petition, but yet evinced so much reluctance in doing his duty. If he was their representative in Guildhall, he certainly was counsel against them in that House. His pleading against the Petition was even more able and effectual than the learned serjeant's; and surely, had he seen a libel such as the learned serjeant mentioned, he would have pounced upon it at once. The House would not, either in compliment to him, or to ministers, do so violent an act as to reject a petition which the worthy alderman himself said came from a body constitutionally convened.

Mr. Peel

observed, that the tax was distinctly stated, and then came a prayer for the consideration of divers matters, in order to stop the career of rash ministers. The objection to the Petition did not proceed from any desire to prevent the expression of the petitioners' sentiments, but for the purpose of supporting the rules of the House.

Mr. Tierney

said, that there were two modes of presenting petitions; one to obtain its reception, and the other to secure its rejection by the House: which the worthy baronet had adopted, the House could easily determine. The Petition complained of a weak, rash, and infatuated Administration, that had resorted to an odious tax, from which they hoped to have been free; but the prayer was not directed against the tax, whatever ingenuity might be displayed to show the contrary. If there were any valid objection, it could not have happened that gentlemen on the other side should take such different grounds. It was true that the name of the Property-tax was mentioned, but the aim was against the members of the Government. The object was to remove the present Government; and he would undertake, without communication with them, that the petitioners would be fully satisfied if that object were accomplished. He took a distinction between a new tax and the revival of an old tax, and doubted whether on that account the rule in the present instance could be applied—[Laughter from ministers]. It was a matter well worth consideration, and he was sorry to see that the grievous complaints of the metropolis of the empire, were the ridicule of the ministers. This technical objection was very welcome to the other side of the House; it was a good expedient to screen unpopular ministers from public execration. He was willing to rest the whole upon this point; whether the citizens of London, in resolving upon the Petition, meant it as a Petition against the Property-tax?

Sir W. Curtis

said, certainly.

Mr. Wallace

said, that there never was a stronger ground of rejection. The Petion desired the consideration of the proposed tax; and it grossly misrepresented the situation and character of the House with the public.

Mr. Baring

said, the circumstance that the Petition was presented by the worthy alderman, was primâ facie evidence that no disrespect was intended to the House. As to its being a Petition against a new tax, it was to be considered, in the first place, that the Property-tax was not a new tax, but a continuation of an old tax, which alone would induce him to entertain considerable doubts till he heard the opinion of the chair: in the next place, in the prayer of the Petition there was not a word of the tax, which was merely mentioned incidentally; he should therefore vote for the bringing up the Petition. Let the House hear what it was; and reject it, if it should prove improper. As far as he had looked at it, there was in it that which he did not concur in, and nothing to induce him to regard it with much favour; but the objection respecting the tax seemed rather a stretch of the rule.

Lord Compton

observed, that when there was a doubt as to the meaning of a petition, the natural course was to bring it up and suffer it to be read. There was another reason why it should be received, which was, that it was said to be extremely improper for the House to receive. If that was the case, he should be very unwilling that it should be got rid of simply by a technical objection.

Mr. W. Smith

said, that the usual course was to call on the member who presented the petition, to read the prayer of it. In that prayer there was nothing to be objected to. The House, therefore, should not refuse to hear the Petition read, because a member who unwillingly presented it quarrelled with some of its sentiments.

Sir W. Curtis

observed, that he had entertained doubts as to the admissibility of the Petition, which he had communicated to the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who entertained more than doubts respecting it. He had communicated, therefore, his doubts to the House, but he did not wish to prejudice them against the Petition.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that if the Petition was against the ministers and their measures generally, it could not be objected to; but if it objected to certain specific measures, of which the Property-tax was one, it would be inconsistent with the rule of the House to receive it. It would be an assistance to the judgment of the House, if the worthy alderman would state more fully the substance of the whole Petition, or the circumstances which took place when it was agreed to;—as, for instance, whether any mention had been made of the Property-tax at the time.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, he had never witnessed such a debate as the present—the presenter of a petition diligently finding objections to it, and the minister ferreting out reasons in support of him. Instead of astuteness in finding out reasons for rejection, the astuteness would be better employed in discovering causes for receiving a petition. He did not understand a petition against a tax by implication. Probably no two would agree on the exact point of objection. The rule was, not to receive a petition against a tax proposed for the ways and means of the present year; but, then, the prayer must distinctly express that request. Inference and deduction were not fair grounds of rejection. He had seen many petitions more offensive than the present; but the House ought to know its contents. Were he on the opposite bench in such a case, he should be desirous of receiving it.

Sir W. Curtis moved, that the Petition be read.

Mr. H. Sumner

was in favour of reading it. The tax might be so introduced as to be incidental to the chief object of the prayer. Though he did not concur in the use of the word 'execration,' yet he did not think that sufficient to exclude it. A general courtesy should be observed towards petitions when they were not offensive, or when particular points might be liberally construed. He should, vote against the rejection, unless the Speaker said it might be read as part of the worthy alderman's speech.

The Speaker

observed, that the member who presented a petition to the House was bound to state the substance of it; but if the House wished to hear the words, the course was, that the clerk at the table should read it. As to the rule against receiving petitions against taxes, it clearly was, that no petition should be received against any tax voted in the committee of Ways and Means for the year.

The Petition was then presented and read; setting forth,

"That the petitioners, having so recently witnessed the marked disregard shown to the petitions from the City of London, and those of the nation at large, could not fail to have been confirmed in their conviction of the corrupt state of the representation, and of the want of sympathy in the House with the feelings and opinions of the people; and that these considerations would, under circumstances of less importance, have deterred the petitioners from the exercise of a right which appears to have been rendered nugatory; but, hopeless as they fear it is again to address the House, yet at a crisis so momentous, when a determination has been so strongly manifested by the ministers of the Crown again to plunge this devoted country into the horrors of war, the petitioners feel it to be an imperious duty to their country, themselves, and posterity, to use every constitutional means towards averting from the nation the overwhelming calamities with which it is menaced; and that they have seen, with feelings of abhorrence, the declarations and treaties of the Allied Powers, and to which are affixed the names of British ministers, wherein are avowed and promulgated the monstrous and unheard-of principles, that the breach of a convention by a Sovereign destroys the only legal title on which his existence depended, places him without the pale of civil and social relations, renders him liable to public vengeance, and that, consequently, there can be neither peace nor truce with him; principles revolting to the feelings of civilized society, repugnant to the rights, liberties, and security of all states, and evincing a combination, or rather a conspiracy, which, if once sanctioned, would lead to consequences the most dreadful and alarming, and for which there is no parallel in the history of the world; and that, recollecting the noble struggles which our ancestors have made for re-establishing and preserving their liberties, recollecting the frequent reformations they have made in the Government, that they have always maintained and exercised this right, and that the august Family now on the Throne derived the right to the crown, not by hereditary claims, but upon the legitimate foundation of all authority, the choice of the people, and indignantly disclaiming, as our ancestors have done, all right in Foreign Powers to interfere in our internal concerns, the petitioners cannot but consider any attempt to dictate to France, or any other country, the form or mode of its government, the person who shall or shall not be at the head of such government, or in any way to interfere in its internal policy and regulations, as highly impolitic and manifestly unjust: The petitioners, therefore, deprecate any designs to involve this country in a war for such an object, a war against those principles which this nation has always maintained and acted upon; and that, torn by the miseries and calamities of the late devastating war, still tasting the bitter fruits of that protracted conflict, and no means having been adopted to lessen our burthens, by those necessary retrenchments in the national expenditure so earnestly and so repeatedly called for by the people, but, on the contrary, an Act has been passed restricting the importation of corn, by which a tax is virtually imposed of several millions per annum upon food, entailing upon us, in times of peace, one of the greatest evils produced by the war: before, therefore, we are plunged into another war, and in support of such principles, the petitioners might ask the House, what has been gained by the immense sacrifices we have already made; and, contemplating the disastrous consequences of a failure in this new contest the people have a right to demand, what advantages are proposed even in the event of its success, or, at least, to be satisfied that hostilities are unavoidable, and that every means of honourable and fair negociation have been exerted and proved ineffectual; for to enter into such a contest in the present state of the country, with all our national funds mortgaged to their utmost bearing, and that without an effort at negociation or to refuse to conclude a Treaty with any Power under the presumption that such Treaty may at some remote period be broken, appears to us an act of insanity, putting to hazard not only the property and happiness of families, but even the very existence of the British empire, and tending to exclude for ever from the world the blessings of peace; and that, were the impolicy of a new war upon such principles and under such circumstances at all doubtful, or were governments at all to be benefited by the result of experience, the petitioners need but recall to their recollection the memorable Manifesto of the duke of Brunswick at the commencement of the late conflict; a manifesto which had the effect of arousing and uniting all the energies of the French nation, and gave that victorious impulse to her arms which endangered the liberties of Europe; the petitioners need but call to recollection, that, during the progress of that war, notwithstanding the immense sacrifice of British blood, and the wanton waste of British treasure lavished in subsidizing allies to fight in their own cause, the petitioners have not unfrequently seen those powers who entered the contest in alliance with us, abandon that alliance, and join the league with France, endeavouring to exclude us from the continent of Europe; that, after all our sacrifices and all our exertions in the common cause, we failed to procure from one sovereign that tribute to humanity, the abolition of the Slave-trade, and beheld another monarch commence his career by reestablishing the Inquisition, persecuting the best patriots of the country, and even prohibiting the introduction of British manufactures into his dominions; and that the petitioners ever have been, and now are, ready to support the honour, the character, and the interests of the British empire, and to resist every act of aggression; but seeing all the consequences of the late war, looking at the depressed state of the country, the burthens and privations of the people, the financial difficulties, the uncertainty and hazards of war, seeing likewise that France has disclaimed all intention of interfering in the concerns of other nations, that she has declared her determination to adhere to the Treaty of Paris, that she has made pacific overtures to the different Allied Powers, has already abolished the Slave-trade, and given other indications of returning to principles of equity and moderation, and holding, as the petitioners do, all wars to be unjust, unless the injury sustained is clearly defined, and redress by negociation cannot be obtained, and more particularly holding in abhorrence all attempts to dictate to, or interfere with other nations in their internal concerns, they cannot but protest against the renewal of hostilities, as founded neither in justice or necessity; and that it is with feelings of indignation they perceive his Majesty's ministers have proposed the renewal of that most galling, oppressive, and hateful inquisition—the tax upon income; an inquisition which had, in consequence of the universal execration it had excited, been reluctantly abandoned, and which the petitioners had hoped could never have been again renewed, at least during the existence of that generation who remember its oppressions; and praying the House to take these matters into their most serious consideration, and that they would interpose their authority to stop a weak, rash, and infatuated Administration in their mad and frightful career, and adopt such measures as may best preserve the peace and promote the prosperity of the nation."

Sir W. Curtis moved, that the petition do lie on the table.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed, that if any doubt remained on the minds of the House, it must now be completely removed. The petition was directly against the renewal of the Property-tax. The petition went through a variety of matter, stating different grounds of complaint involving the Property-tax, and concluded by praying the House to take those matters into consideration, and to interpose its authority. Although it was desirable to throw the doors wide open to petitions, he thought the present was not entitled to be received.

Mr. Abercrombie

thought that this petition contained two distinct propositions. The first was a sort of apology for coming to that House after the little attention that had lately been paid to petitions. Upon this point he must say, that he believed that the inattention which had been evinced in the course of the present session, not only to the petitions of the city of London, but to the petitions of the great body of the people of this country, was altogether unprecedented in the annals of parliament. Upon the other point, it appeared as if it was the disposition of the House to construe their rules as strictly as possible against the petitioners. The whole of the petition was an argument against the conduct of ministers, in plunging the country into a war, which appeared to the petitioners unnecessary and improper, at least before the experiment of negociation had been tried. The fact respecting the renewal of the Property-tax was only stated incidentally, and as a consequence of that conduct of ministers of which they complained; for how could the subject of the renewal of the war be considered, without the mind being at once turned to the renewal of the Property-tax? Technical rules, he thought, should not be strictly applied to such a momentous subject, and especially to a petition coming from the largest city in his Majesty's dominions.

Mr. Serjeant Best

opposed the receiving the petition, on what he conceived to be much higher grounds than those suggested by the hon. baronet. He should put it to the House, whether they would submit to be told by any petitioners, that they were not in the habit of listening to petitions from the people. Every body who was at all in the habit of attending the House, and witnessing its proceedings, must know that this was a most false and infamous misrepresentation. It was well known, that as to the particular point, the Property-tax, the House had in the course of the present session received a vast number of petitions,—but under other circumstances, and when such petitions could be received without violating their established rules and usages. Could it then be said, that the House paid no attention to those petitions, or could it be denied that those petitions had a considerable influence? An hon. gentleman had asked, was it decent for the House to reject the petition of the City of London, on such grounds as had been suggested? He should ask, was it decent in the City of London to talk to that House of the corrupt state of the representation? If such language had come from a small obscure place in the country, he should not by any means feel so strong an objec- tion, as he did from its coming from the City of London. If it was stated, that petitions from so respectable a body as the City of London were entitled to peculiar attention, then he would say, that it became that body to be attentive to use proper and decent language in their petitions. He wished distinctly to express, that his reason for voting for the rejection of the petition, was not that it was a petition against a money bill, but because he conceived that in its language it was a gross insult to the House.

Sir Francis Burdett

saw nothing in the language of this petition that was stronger than what had been used in many petitions which had been received by that House. As to the charges which it contained against the system of representation by which the House was now constituted, he apprehended the rejection of the petition would have rather the effect of impressing those opinions more generally on the minds of the people out of doors.

Mr. Grenfell

opposed the reception of the petition, as he conceived that the language used in it was untrue, and intended as an insult to that House.

Mr. Lyttelton

said, that if the petition, was rejected on the grounds on which it was opposed, it would afford a precedent most fatal to the right of petition.

Mr. Wortley

thought the petition was merely to be considered as a petition against the Administration, and not as particularly directed against the Property-tax.

Mr. Lockhart

said, that he conceived the petition was highly disrespectful. It accused the House of totally neglecting its duties, and contained such sentiments as ought not to be received from any place, and least of all from the City of London. If a petition containing such sentiments was received from the City of London, it would be an example to any other place, that might feel disposed to address the House in unbecoming language.

Mr. Alderman Atkins

said, that the petition contained language which he was sorry to see in a petition from the City of London; but it was the language of those who had been habitually opposing every measure of Government. He was convinced the sentiments were far from being those of the majority of the livery of London. He hoped the House would receive the petition. He thought it beneath their dignity to reject the petition, when he could assure them that it contained only the sentiments of a small minority of the livery of London.

Mr. Alderman C. Smith

said, that the last speaker had made use of the oddest argument for receiving the petition that could be conceived. Now, he thought that instead of its being received for being the language of a few, and being against the sentiments of the majority, it should therefore be rejected by the House.

Mr. Preston

said, that as it was stated to be the legal petition of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Liverymen, it should be treated with respect as such. He therefore supported the motion.

Mr. H. Sumner

said, that he had delivered his opinion, that the petition should not be rejected on account of technicalities; but he would now vote that it be not received on much stronger grounds. The first paragraph contained, he conceived, the most scandalous libel that could be uttered against the House. The insult was the grosser, on account of coming from the City of London. It was not because the City of London was great, that direspectful language towards that House should be received from it. The City of London had petitioned against the Corn Bill, and had prophesied that if the Bill should be passed, corn would immediately be above 80s. It was no great disparagement to the House, that it did not yield to the prayer, nor believe in the prophecy of that petition. An hon. alderman had said, that the sentiments of this petition were only the sentiments of a few of the liverymen. He should then ask, where were the many? Were they present, or were they not present? If they were absent, why were they absent; and if they were present, why did they not express their sentiments by their votes? If those were really the sentiments of only a few of the livery, he should like to see their signatures, that he might know who they were, and what was their situation in life.

Mr. W. Smith

observed, that if what had been stated about the representation was to be considered an insult to the House, he did not know in what manner a petition for parliamentary reform could be drawn, without stating what the petitioners complained of in the present mode of representation. As the objection to the petition seemed at present mainly grounded on the first paragraph, which conveyed imputations against the House; he should read a passage from a petition which had been presented, and which had been received and entered on the Journals. This petition stated—that many members of the House of Commons were appointed by the direct authority of the Executive Government, or by powerful individuals or bodies of men;—that innumerable illegal returns were procured by bribery;—and that a House of Commons so constituted could not be considered as a true representative of the national will or a faithful guardian of the interests of the people. If in the case of that petition such language was not considered as a sufficient ground for rejecting it, the language of that which had been just read, could not afford any objection to its being received.

Mr. Baring

observed, that the ground on which the petition was objected to had been shifted by its opponents. Hundreds of petitions had been presented against the passing of the Corn Bill, which had not been attended to; and some of those petitions had stated that the opinions of the petitioners of the necessity of a reform in the representation would be confirmed if that Bill passed. The imputation of the liverymen had therefore some foundation, and he did not believe it would have been at all objected to, if it had not been coupled with disrespectful language towards the Administration.

Mr. Bathurst

said, he would oppose the reception of the petition, on the ground of its being a petition against the Property-tax.

Mr. Forbes

said, the only thing to be regretted upon this occasion was, that there should have been so much discussion. Had the petition been received quietly, and laid upon the table, he had no doubt but the petitioners would have been extremely disappointed.

The House then divided:

For the motion 59
Against it 107
Majority —48