HC Deb 22 March 1822 vol 6 cc1231-7
Mr. Lambton

presented a petition from Newcastle upon Tyne, signed by 4,820 persons, praying for the liberation of Mr. Hunt. He had no hesitation in saying, without at all entering into the consideration of the principles or of the conduct of Mr. Hunt, with which he had no concern, that that individual had been treated in a most unjustifiable manner. The sentence originally passed upon him was most severe; and it could not be in the contemplation of the judges, that the severity of that sentence should be aggravated by the hardships and tortures which had been inflicted on Mr. Hunt by the gaoler, under the sanction of the visiting magistrates; or, at least, without any remedy being applied to the evil on their part. The petitioners urged Mr. Hunt as a fit object for the exercise of the royal clemency. They also represented the necessity of a reform in the representation; and expressed their strong disapprobation of the proceedings at Manchester.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, that the petition was not agreed to at any public meeting, and therefore, could not be considered as representing the fair opinions of the inhabitants of the district from which it professed to come. Neither the original petition, nor a copy, had been sent to him, although it was given to other members. The petition could only be taken to represent the opinions of those persons by whom, it was signed. He, nevertheless, though, that the circumstances which had attended the imprisonment of Mr. Hunt deserved the serious consideration of the House.

On the motion, that the petition do lie on the table,

Mr. Fremantle

said, it was impossible the House, in common justice to its own character aid dignity, should consent that the imputations conveyed in the Petition, should be permitted to lie on the table. Was such an expression as "the notorious and avowed corruptions which have crept into your House," to be tolerated? Nor was the passage in which the petitioners referred to "the illegal, cruel, and unparalleled deeds committed at Manchester," and "the wickedness of those evil counsellors who had advised his majesty to approve of the slaughter of his own subjects," less objectionable; more especially when it was considered how frequently the subject had been discussed in that House. On these grounds he must oppose the reception of the petition.

Mr. Lushington

called the attention of the House to another paragraph in the petition, which was equally objectionable. It was that in which the petitioners stated, that "the mental, tortures endured by Mr. Hunt, ought to be considered a sufficient atonement for the, crime of showing how your honourable House might he made still more honourable."

Sir R. Wilson

was surprised to find gentlemen so fastidious, particularly when he recollected that they expressed no displeasure on a former night, when a noble marquis declared, that useless stipendiary offices ought to be kept up, in order to enable ministers to carry on the machine of government. Why were those places to be maintained, but in order to secure the influence of a certain noble lord in another house, and his dependants in this? The House could not fail to perceive the object for which unnecessary offices were continued, when they recollected the manner in which lord Fife had been deprived of the place which he had held, because he voted against ministers in that House. Hon. members might, if they pleased, dispute about terms, but the facts would remain the same. They might call certain offices great, but the purposes for which they were given and held were well known. They were given, according to the acknowledgment of the noble marquis, for the purpose of obtaining for ministers a sinister influence in that House. The people had a right to complain of this.

Mr. James

was astonished at the fastidiousness of the gentlemen opposite, with respect to the passages in the petition which imputed corruption to that House, when he recollected the declaration of the late Speaker, that the buying and selling of seats in that House "was as notorious as the sun at noon-day."

Mr. Wynn

believed that no circumstances which had occurred during the last ten years had even been so grossly miserpre- sented as had been the declaration of the late Speaker, by the hon. gentleman who spoke last. If the predecessor of the present Speaker had uttered the words which the hon. member had imputed, he (Mr. W.) would not hesitate to say, that he had entirely lost sight of the duty which be owed to the House. He appealed, however, to hon. members, who had sat in the parliament over which their late Speaker presided, at the time when the declaration attributed to him was made, whether it contained any admission that the House was corrupt, and whether it did not, on the contrary, express horror that such a character should have been ascribed to it? With respect to the question before the House, he thought it was impossible for any person to have heard the petition read without coming to the conclusion, that its object was, to vilify and disgrace the House, and not only the House, but the administration of justice. If the House allowed such imputations to be spread abroad, not a single institution of the country could be maintained. He knew it might be said, "Let our institutions rest for their defence upon their own high character; if it be found that they do not deserve the odium which is attempted to be fastened upon them, they can sustain no injury:" but he could not admit the truth or wisdom of such reasoning; for there was no institution, however venerable, that could withstand long and continued attacks of this nature. If the House were to permit the court of King's-Bench and the institution of juries to be traduced with impunity, the administration of justice would soon cease to hold that high situation in public opinion which it had for so long a time held with so much advantage to the nation. He had never objected to the reception of a petition which had been respectfully worded; but the decision of the question, whether a petition should or should not be received, did not depend upon a particular expression, but upon the whole tenor of the language. If any person, therefore, could lay his hand upon his heart, and say that he believed the object of the petition to be, to complain of grievances, that person might vote for its reception; but, those who thought with him, that the only intention of the petition was to vilify and traduce the House, must vote for its rejection.

Mr. Bennet

maintained, that the right hon. gentleman had incorrectly stated the opinion expressed by the late Speaker on the subject of the alleged corruption in that House. The language used by the late Speaker was, that such practices would have made our ancestors startle with indignation. It was not the Speaker who had said that the purchase of seats was as plain as the sun at noon day; but the late Mr. Ponsonby. With respect to the petition, it contained some reprehensible parts, which, had he framed it, he would have omitted: but he was not prepared to say, therefore, that it ought not to be received. He had seen petitions containing language infinitely stronger than this, laid on the table. If petitions were not to contain any imputations on the courts of law or other tribunals, there would be an end at once of all petitions for redress of grievances. The House might, indeed, receive petitions of congratulation and condolence, but none of complaint or accusation. He would not allude particularly to the case of Mr. Hunt, but he believed that many crown prosecutions were carried on from political and vindictive motives. If the people suffered under severe and pressing grievances, how could they avoid expressing their sufferings in strong and pointed language? Upon such occasions, it did not become parliament to look with a microscopic eye at their petitions, to discover if they contained any expressions which could be construed into an insult upon that House. He maintained that the House ought to listen to those petitions, however harsh or uncourtly they might sound in the ears of those gentlemen who had recently left one, and taken their seats on the other side of the House.

Mr. Mansfield

appealed to the hon. member, whether it was to be tolerated, that the gentlemen who voted on one side of the House should be told that they were influenced only by corrupt motives? He, for one, sat in that. House, not by the influence of corruption, but by the unanimous choice of a large number of most respectable constituents; and though his vote had been often given in opposition to the opinions of gentlemen opposite, yet he had given that vote unbiassed by any undue influence or corrupt motive. He disdained such motives as much as any man; and it was, because this petition most improperly imputed them, that he should oppose its reception.

Mr. Hobhouse

said, there was no necessary for the hon. gentleman to sup- pose that this petition contained any imputation against hon. members, who, like himself, were returned by the free choice of their constituents. His "withers were unwrung." But a minister of the Crown, on a former night, had admitted enough to justify the phrase used in the petition, as that minister, in defending what were by some considered useless places, had supported their necessity, upon the ground that there were always a few to be kept for gentlemen on the opposite side who were gaping for them. It was too much, then, to be squeamish about words, which only conveyed the sense already avowed by a minister of the Crown. He agreed, that more measured words might have been used in this petition, so as to escape cavil or objection in that House; but their own sense would tell them that the words could do them no harm unless they were true. There was surely no harm in telling the truth, "Words break no bones" was the proverb; and certainly they could not, if they were shot at random; for then they were only a fit subject for laughter. He was, however, astonished when the right hon. gentleman asserted, that a similar charge had never been suffered to he on their table. Did he not remember the petition of "The Friends of the People," who offered to prove at their bar, that a certain number of peers and commoners, by their own individual interest, returned a majority of the members of that House? Nobody objected to the reception of that petition; he fancied that Mr. Burke, a great stickler for their privileges, had heard it read, and that Mr. Pitt also a great stickler for privilege, though an apostate from the cause of reform, had not opposed its lying on the table. He denied that this petition ought to be considered as an attack upon the courts of judicature: it only attacked prosecutors: and where the weight of the Crown was used in particular prosecutions, was it not a fit object of attack? As to Mr. Hunt's treatment, it was agreed on all sides, that his sentence had been aggravated most unjustifiably since his imprisonment. Looking to the main question, he thought great allowance ought to be made for the people. When they felt a grievance, it was honourable to them that they expressed themselves strongly upon it; and it was the more honourable to the petitioners, that in this case they expressed themselves indignantly, not at their own sufferings, but at the suf- ferings of another. By the six acts, much difficulty was thrown in the way of holding public assemblies for the purpose of petitioning. He thought, therefore, that hon. members ought not to reject hastily such petitions, as it was still in the power of the people to present.

Mr. Lambton

said, that he had received no notice respecting this petition, until he was advised that the parties were about to transmit it to him for presentation. It was true that it did not emanate from any public meeting; indeed, there would not have been time to have called one, so as to have secured the arrival of a petition before the day fixed for discussing the subject in which the petitioners took such an interest. Besides, they should recollect the many absolute difficulties which were thrown in the way of meetings of the people by the six acts. He was astonished that the gentlemen opposite should be now so eager to complain of a petition, merely because it was not adopted at a public meeting, when they were the gentlemen who declared, that that very circumstance formed no objection to the hole-and-corner petitions which they so highly praised. The right hon. gentleman (Mr. Wynn) was perfectly consistent in opposing what he deemed an offensive imputation in a petitions He had always seen him disposed rather to close the doors of that House than to throw them wide open fir the reception of petitions containing any words likely to offend the squeamish taste of the House. They ought to excuse the people for putting a strong construction upon transactions which were not denied within that House. When on a former occasion he had presented a petition from Lyme complaining of the improper interference of a peer at an election, the hon. baronet opposite (sir J. Graham) asserted in its palliation, that if a noble earl had interfered on one side, it was equally notorious that noble persons in the interest of the opposition adopted the same course at elections. He had also heard lord Cochrane mention the regular market price of a seat, and say that he had paid 5,000l. for one. When the people out of doors heard that such notorious facts were stated, and not contradicted within, he thought they might be excused for occasionally passing an opinion upon the information which reached them. An appeal had been made to him, whether be did not believe the object of the petitioners was, to insult that House? He did not in his conscience believe that such was their object; but rather that they meant to apply for the liberation of Mr. Hunt. If, in making that application, they had used terms which would induce the rejection of their petition, he should lament the circumstance, from the unfavourable impression it might create in Mr. Hunt's case—a man with whose principles and politics he had nothing to do, and whom he only recognized as a man suffering under injustice—in the minds of those who would before many days have to decide upon it.

Mr. Peel

said, that after perusing the petition, he could not come to the same conclusion as the hon. gentleman had; namely, that no offence was intended by the petitioners. He entirely agreed with him that nothing was more impolitic than to check the expression of the people's complaints; yet he trusted to the hon. gentleman's own candour to admit, that nothing could be so prejudicial to the right of petitioning itself, as suffering the language used by these petitioners to pass without censure. It was a studied attempt to throw obloquy and insult upon all the institutions of the country it charged the government with instituting vindictive prosecutions, it cast a slur upon the administration of justice, and stated that the judges had punished Mr. Hunt merely because he shad endeavoured to bring about a reform. Was it possible to permit such an imputation as this to be east upon the judges of the land? As to declaration respecting the imputed notorious corruption of that House, if they once admitted the principle that such an allegation could be allowed in petitions, it would be too late to attempt to stop the repetition of such language. Viewing this petition, therefore, as a precedent, which, if adopted, would inevitably lead to a repetition of insults, he felt himself called upon to reject the petition.

Mr. Monck

declared, that the petition though strong, was couched in language similar to that often expressed in the discussion of the same topics. He was decidedly in favour of receiving it.

The House divided: Ayes 22. Noes 123.

List of the Minority.
Barrett, S. M. Creevey, T.
Birch, J. Ellice, E.
Bernall, R. Fergusson, sir R.
Bury, lord Gaskell, B.
Calvert, N. Hobhouse, J. C.
Hume, J. Robarts, col.
James, W. Robinson, sir G.
Maberly, J. Wood, alderman
Maule, hon. W. Wilson, sir R.
Monck, J. B. TELLERS.
Nugent, lord Lambton, J. G.
Ricardo, D. Bennet, hon. H. G.
Palmer, C. F.