HC Deb 14 August 1833 vol 20 cc606-8
Mr. Hume

held in his hand three returns relating to stamp prosecutions. These would show, that within three years there had been above 400 persons imprisoned for offences against the Stamp-laws. The first of these Returns showed, that in 1831, there had been seventy-seven persons prosecuted for these offences; that, up to February, 1832, there had been 3l persons in prison on account of these offences; that, up to March, 1833, there had been 254. He knew it would be said that all these prosecutions had not been instituted by the Stamp-office, but he believed, that a great, many of these prosecutions had proceeded from the Stamp-office. He was obliged to I say, that these prosecutions had increased of late, and especially since the present Ministry came into office. He could distinctly assert, that, from 1819, to the time of the present Ministry coming into office. there had not been half the number of prosecutions that had taken place since. He wished to know whether that was or was not disgraceful to a liberal Ministry? He should be ashamed of himself if he were in their place, to look back upon his former opinions and then to look at its present practice. If they had not instituted these prosecutions, they had, by their conduct, sanctioned them. There was at this moment a great desire for cheap publications, and the Government ought to encourage it, and not to punish those who put forth such publications. The Ministers ought to show more sympathy with the wishes of the people, and not deprive them of the means of buying this cheap knowledge. They had made many general promises to relieve the people from the obnoxious Acts that now prevented their having cheap publications, but month after month, and Session after Session had passed away, and nothing was done. He put it to the Ministers whether they would allow another six months to pass in this manner, when, perhaps, many more persons would be imprisoned under these obnoxious Acts? He had often told the Ministry what might be done. Let them repeal this one of the Six Acts under which these prosecutions were instituted. They had often spoken against it when out of office; let them repeal it now. He hoped that the noble Lord would promise to introduce a Bill to repeal the 60th George 3rd., c. 69; and if he did so, he would do very satisfactory service to the public.

Lord Althorp

said, that the hon. Member was mistaken in supposing that these prosecutions were under the 60th George 3rd. By far the greatest number were instituted under an Act of George 2nd, which had lately been brought into execution, and that by common informers. He believed there was only one mode of stopping these prosecutions, and that was by repealing the Stamp-duty on newspapers, and the fact of these prosecutions had been a motive with him for wishing to repeal that duty. With respect to the 60th George 3rd, to which the hon. Member had so much alluded, it was certainly opposed by him and others at the time of its introduction; but he begged the hon. Member to recollect that the parts he opposed were those that related to the giving of recognizances, and to banishment for the second offence. With respect to them, he had not altered his opinion. As to the Six Acts, he observed that some of them had expired; and he hoped the time was not far distant before this Act, which was a permanent one, might be altered; but if this Act was repealed, that would not put an end to stamp prosecutions, for they were instituted under a different Statute.

Mr. Cobbett

said, that the noble Lord seemed to think that the prosecutions under which these men were imprisoned, were not instituted under one of the Six Acts. He thought the noble Lord was mistaken on that point. The great evil of the Six Acts was that they restrained the people from publishing cheap publications periodically. Before the time of passing those Acts, they might have done so, but now they could not publish any paper of a certain size more than once a month, and not with any sort of news, if the price was less than sixpence. The Act was intended against him, but he had raised the price of his paper, and so far as he was concerned, the Government might as well repeal the Act at once. It could be repealed in two hours. If the hon. Secretary opposite would draw up a Bill of a few lines only, it might at once be introduced into the House and passed through the Legislature in the present Session. It was said, that these were prosecutions of common informers, and that the noble Lord was not answerable for them. But he was answerable, for the prosecutions were in consequence of the law which the Government kept in force, and, therefore, these prosecutions were the work of the Government. Besides, who were these common informers? He was informed that policemen generally brought men before the Magistrates, and that persons from the Stamp-office came forward to become prosecutors. Now, to say nothing of the policemen being under the Orders of the Government, if the Government ordered the Stamp-office to desist from these prosecutions they would do so. The Attorney and Solicitor General had tried, in former times, to put down cheap publications, but now the attempt was made by these Stamp prosecutions, and they were the more efficient. These Stamp officers were more tyrannical and malicious than ever the Attorney or Solicitor General had been.

Conversation dropped.