HC Deb 01 December 1819 vol 41 cc575-8

The House having resolved itself into a committee on the Stamp Duties act of the 56th of the King, c. 56.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he should decline discussing the principle on which the resolution which he had now to move was founded, as it would most probably come before the House immediately, on another occasion. He had thought it his duty to introduce it to the House, because a considerable fraud had been committed on the revenue, by means of the pamphlets against which his measure was intended, and because a considerable invasion had also been made by them upon the property of the regular newspapers. He then handed up his resolution to the chairman, which was as follows: —"That all Pamphlets, or Papers commonly so called, and all other papers containing public news, or intelligence or occurrences, or any remarks or observations, address, or letter thereon, or upon any matter established in Church or State, printed in any part of the United Kingdom, to be dispersed and made public, which shall not exceed two sheets, or which shall be sold or exposed to sale for a less sum than six-pence, exclusive of the Duty to be charged thereon, shall be deemed and taken to be Newspapers within the meaning of the several Acts in force relating to Newspapers in Great-Britain and Ireland respectively, and be subject to the like Duties of Stamps."

Mr. Brougham

said, that as this was only a resolution preparatory to the bringing in of a bill upon the subject, he should not enter into the principle of it at any length, because, though the resolution entered into some details, it had not mentioned any of the exceptions which it was doubtless intended to allow. He should therefore only refer to one circumstance at present, which had been very incorrectly stated by the noble lord on a former night. He had not the slightest doubt of the misrepresentation which the noble lord had made being unintentional; he conceived it to have arisen from his not having seen, or from his not having considered the acts of parliament which already existed upon the subject. After the decided reprobation which he (Mr. Brougham) had passed upon the seditious and blasphemous libels which had emanated from the press in the course of the last three years, he did not expect that he should be suspected of too great a leaning towards them. He must, however, say, that nobody ought to be charged with more crimes than those of which they were actually guilty; and therefore he thought that it was not altogether right to charge men who were guilty of treason or blasphemy, with being also guilty of a fraud upon the revenue. He would show the House good reasons why the publishers of these pamphlets were not guilty of the charge which had that evening been brought against them. The words of the Stamp act, on which alone this charge had been substantiated, and upon which he had always given his opinion, when requested so to do, were "Any newspaper or papers containing any news, intelligence, or occurrence." From those words it was impossible to argue that a person who did not publish any news, intelligence, or occurrence, but merely commented upon them, was guilty of a fraud upon the revenue, because the loophole through which he escaped was evidently a loophole contemplated by the legislature. That this was the case would appear more clearly by considering the intention of the legislature. The act allowed not only individuals to publish every week, or at any other perodical intervals, such comments, but also contained a clause stating the terms on which they were to publish them. From the word- ing of this clause it had always been his opinion, that a man who published a pamphlet, containing mere comment, periodically, was not evading, much less defrauding the revenue. He had thought it requisite to make these observations, in consequence of what had fallen from the noble lord on a former occasion. He was clearly of opinion that nothing could be more dangerous to society, nothing more pernicious to the best interests of humanity, than what had recently gone forth to the world in these two penny pamphlets, and his charge against ministers was, that they had not endeavoured to stop that torrent of blasphemy and sedition which had lately inundated the country, before it had arrived at its present height. The existing laws conferred on them sufficient power wherewith to have done it; and he would pledge himself to show, when the proper opportunity arrived, that they were more effectual for such purpose, than those new measures which the House was called upon to adopt, and that they would be the laws to which the ministers would ultimately be compelled to repair in order to punish offenders, even though they carried their present severe and extraordinary propositions.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that he should imitate the example of his right hon. friend, and say very little upon the resolution now before the House, inasmuch as it was merely formal, and arose from the necessity which existed of having a recommendatory vote from the committee before it could be brought into the House, owing to its being a money bill. The bill was not in the hands of hon. members at present, and that gave him another reason for not discussing its enactments at present. If, in the debate of a former evening on this subject, he bad said any thing incorrect or offensive, he was ready instantly to retract it; but he had then quoted the case of one Journal which appeared to have taken the same view of the subject as he himself had done; it had originally paid the usual newspaper duty, but it now escaped it by passing under the name of a pamphlet. He thought some such legislative enactment as that which this resolution contemplated to be actually requisite to protect what he had called the respectable part of the press. An acquiescence in the resolution of that evening would not pledge hon. members to support the measures which might afterwards be founded Upon it.

Mr. Brougham

begged leave to inform the noble lord, that the publication to which he alluded, and which he believed to be Cobbett's [lord Castlereagh bowed assent,] did, at the time when it paid the duty, contain news, sad especially when parliament was sitting; ever since it had ceased to pay the duty it contained no articles of public intelligence.

Sir M. W. Ridley

entered his protest against the measure now proposed. He thought that it most materially affected the interests of the country; some of the other bills were local and temporally; this was general and permanent; he, there-fore, felt himself bound to raise his voice against a bill which made so important an alteration in the laws of England.

The resolution was then agreed to.