said that, in December last, he moved for a return stating the number of persons who had been imprisoned for selling unstamped publications. From the return made to that order of the House, it appeared that no less than seventy-seven persons had been imprisoned for that offence, which was an offence under one of the well-known Six Acts. In looking at the sentences inflicted on many of those individuals, one could not but be struck with the great inequality of the punishments for the same offences. He spoke of the sentences passed by the Magistrates at the Metropolitan police-offices. In one office, the offence was visited with an imprisonment of seven days; in another, fourteen days; in another, a month; in another, two months; and so on, in all gradations, from seven days to three months. Now, such a law could not, he contended, be a just law, or could not be properly executed. The law was originally directed to put down Cobbett's publication, but it had now the effect of preventing the poor man, who might desire to purchase them, from getting many useful little publications, the price of which was so low as to place them within his reach, while, at the same time, it gave a monopoly to many of the stamped publications. He contended that the law itself was a bad one; that it was an extremely unpopular one, and that it would be found almost im- 678 possible in this country to enforce it by the system now practised, of imprisoning the poor men who sold the unstamped publications, which many of them were driven to, having no other means of supporting their families. Many hon. Members were, perhaps, not aware of the great number of those publications which were published. Some, he would admit, were of a very objectionable character; but there were many of a very useful and interesting kind, containing much valuable information. The hon. Member here read a list of eighteen of them, copies of which he held in his hand, and contended that it was very hard to imprison poor people for selling publications which contained much useful and valuable information. Such was the general feeling as to the impolicy and partial operation of this law, that a society was already formed for the protection of those who sold such publications. Some of the poor men who were sentenced to imprisonment for selling those publications were treated like felons. One poor man, for selling one of the penny publications was taken through the streets from the police-office, chained to two others, like a felon. Surely this was a state of the law which ought not to be allowed to exist any longer; and he did trust, that even the present Session would not be allowed to pass over, without having something done to amend it. Was it just that sixty or seventy persons, incarcerated for offences under this Act, should be fed on bread and water—a diet given to murderers and other convicted felons? He repeated, that it was impossible to execute the law without gross injustice, and that, even as it was now administered, there was great partiality and injustice. Even, if no act could be passed to remedy the evil in this Session, it was in the power of Ministers to mitigate it in some degree, by giving directions to the Commissioners of Stamps on this subject. The hon. Member concluded by moving an address for "a return of the number of persons who have been committed by the Magistrates for selling unstamped publications, from the 12th of December, 1831, to the present time, stating the names of the persons committed, the Magistrates by whom committed, and the periods for which committed:" also, "the number now actually in prison for each offence; distinguishing those committed by the Magistrates of the metropolis, and those in other parts of the country."
§ Lord Althorp
did not rise to object to the Motion. His hon. friend complained 679 of partiality in the administration of the law as to those publications, but it was well known, that some of those cheap publications contained matters which required a stamp, while others did not; and he would ask his hon. friend, what would be the situation of those papers which paid duty, if a free competition were to be allowed against them by papers which paid no duty to the Government? He admitted, that many of the small publications were of a very useful kind; but his hon. friend had admitted that others had quite an opposite tendency, and were mischievous in their character. The best way to destroy the influence of the latter, would be to encourage cheap publications of a useful kind, and he admitted, that the best mode of effecting this would be to reduce the stamp duty on newspapers. To this, in principle, he had no objection; but as he was not prepared with any measure on that subject in the present Session, the only thing that could be done till that was effected, would be, to protect those papers which did pay stamp duty to Government.
§ Mr. Hunt
said, that it would be impossible to put down publications by which so many poor persons obtained bread for themselves and their families. Publications, in different parts of the country, were now supported, not by men only, but by women also, who were associated in different parts of the country for that purpose. He was sure, that the inequality of punishment under this law was both absurd and unjust, and proved the absurdity and injustice of the law itself. It was, he added, useless to imprison men for offences under this Act, who were glad to run the risk of imprisonment rather than be without the means of support, and who, in their imprisonment, considered themselves, and were looked upon by others, as martyrs in the public cause.
§ Lord Althorp
said, it was a mistake that persons imprisoned under this Act were fed on bread and water. No persons imprisoned were placed on that diet, except such as were condemned for felonies.
Sir Robert Inglis
protested against the principle of making that House a sort of Court of Appeal from the decisions of the legally constituted tribunals of the country. No punishment was inflicted before those tribunals, which was not in due course of law, and it was a most erroneous principle to bring a kind of appeal from those decisions before that House, which was not 680 the proper place, even if any ground of appeal did lie, from the inferior tribunals of the country.
said, that his hon. friend who last addressed the House was mistaken in the object of the Motion. It did not go upon a denial of the legality of the sentences, but called for returns, to see how the law worked, and what was its practical effect, in the same way as the returns moved for some time ago, as to the operation of the Game laws, in order to see how far they had tended to correct the evil which they were intended to remedy.
Mr. Cutlar Fergusson
said, it might be a matter worthy of consideration to see how far it was possible to carry the Stamp-law into execution; and if it could not be executed, he thought it would be only justice to the stamped publications to repeal the stamp duty on them altogether.
, as a proof of the partiality exercised with respect to unstamped publications, said, that the Penny Magazine, published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge had not been prosecuted, though it contained the same kind of matter as some others which had been made the subject of prosecution.
§ Lord Althorp
suggested to his hon. friend, the member for Middlesex, to omit that part of his Motion which called for the names of the Magistrates by whom the decisions were made. The publication of them could not forward his hon. friend's object.
did not see what objection there could be to their publication, as they were given in the last returns, to which no opposition had then been made.
§ Mr. Ruthven
contended, that they ought to be given. The publication of the names of the Magistrates in the police reports had, as any one who read the daily papers must have observed, a most salutary effect, by the control which, through the public opinion, it exercised over them.
would consent to omit the names, provided the offices at which the decisions were given were mentioned in the returns.
§ Motion, as amended, agreed to.