HC Deb 10 August 1835 vol 30 cc202-14
Mr. Roebuck

rose to bring forward the Petition of which he had given notice, and the presentation of which had been already once postponed, respecting a Seizure made under the authority of the Stamp-office. The petition, to a certain extent, involved the character of the present Government; but, although he felt strongly the injustice and misconduct of which it complained, he would state as calmly as he could the circumstances of the case. Process had been issued against two persons of the names of Cleave and Hetherington, but some time was allowed to elapse before it was acted upon. On a sudden, however, Government displayed an activity it had not previously shown, and entering the premises of one of the parties he had named, seized the types, presses, and printing materials there found. It happened that those types, presses, and printing materials did not belong to the individuals against whom Government had proceeded, and the owner put in a legal claim to them, which he had been given to understand had been so far established, that it was not denied. He did not complain that in this transaction Government had put into execution a law that ought never to have been passed, or had chosen to vindicate the existing law regarding stamps, but that, wishing to punish one set of persons for one class of acts, it had seized the property of another set of persons in consequence of another class of acts. A law was passed at the instance of Mr. Pitt, in 1799, which at least one Member of the present Ministry had good cause to remember, for the suppression of Corresponding Societies; and among other provisions, it enacted, that if printing presses were not registered with a magistrate, or at some given office, upon information upon oath, the premises where they were kept might be entered, and the presses seized. It so happened that the party to whom the presses belonged had not registered them, according to the law of 1799, and Government, wishing to reach Cleave and Hetherington, through the owner of the printing presses, seized those presses on the ground that they were not registered. He had been given to understand, though he could not vouch for the fact, that a very large portion of the printing presses in London were in the same predicament; that the owners of them were not acquainted with the law requiring registration; that it had not been carried into execution; in other words, that it had slept until Government, wishing to punish persons who had violated the Stamp Act, availed themselves of a statute that had passed into oblivion, and seized the printing presses of persons who had committed no offence but the neglect of a forgotten law. He submitted, that such a proceeding could in no way be justified; he held, in accordance with the spirit of the whole jurisprudence of England, that no man ought to be punished until he had been tried und convicted; but this law, passed in an unfortunate time, by an unfortunate Minister, who had no regard for the liberties of his country, and who had done more than any of his predecessors to perpetuate his own disgrace—passed for the suppression of discussion, and for the establishment of despotism, which had slept in oblivion for thirty-six years, had been revived, and called into execution by the present Liberal Government. He repeated that the law was not in accordance with the spirit of the jurisprudence of England; it was, indeed, in accordance with the spirit of the jurisprudence of another country, in which, at this moment, was going forward a monster process disgraceful to humanity; but he should be the last man to compare the Attorney-General of England to the Procureur-General of France. The late proceeding, however, seemed to originate in a kindred spirit, which he hoped would never be followed by similar consequences. No man's person or property ought to be seized until, by conviction, it was shown that he had rendered himself liable to punishment. Here punishment had been inflicted before guilt was established. It was one of the difficulties, and one of the imperfections, of our law, that it incarcerated the person before trial; but the same rule by no means applied to property, which was left untouched. It did not at all follow, that because a man was arrested lest he should escape from the law, that his goods also should be seized. In the present case, the rule acted on made the punishment fall upon one man for the supposed offence of another, and on this ground he complained of the act of Government—on this ground he appealed to the House; for whatever might be the intention of the Attorney-General with respect to the Stamp Duties, he had here got himself into a difficulty, by straining the law to his purpose. But it would be said, that the Attorney-General was bound to vindicate the law. He believed, that the Attorney-General would own it to be a bad law; but bad as it was, he would argue that it must be vindicated; and if the hon. and learned Gentleman were consistent in his vindication, he would not complain. But the hon. and learned Gentleman was not consistent; he could point out a case immediately connected with the present, in which the law was never put into execution, and yet it was violated every day. There was a law which imposed a penalty on every man who lends a newspaper, and yet there were, perhaps, many Members of the House, and nearly every member of the inns of court, who daily offended against it. Why had that law been made? That the revenue might not be diminished; for, if newspapers were allowed to be lent, the number of stamps issued would be fewer. It so happened that thousands, regardless of the law, regardless of the money of which the Exchequer would be deprived, in defiance of the Attorney-General, and in despite of the Stamp-office, were in the constant habit of lending newspapers, and yet the right, hon. Gentleman did not attempt to vindicate the law. Why, then, did this zeal for the vindication of the law, in this instance, animate him so suddenly? He admitted that the law against lending newspapers was a bad law, but the law against seizing printing presses was also a bad law, and if the Attorney-General vindicated the one why did he not vindicate the other? What was the worth of his excuse founded on the vindication of the law, if he were not consistent? In the same Act was a Clause making every man liable to a penalty who attended an unlicensed debating club. He had been a member of three or four debating clubs, not one of them licensed, and only one held in a licensed house; yet he had never been prosecuted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or by the Attorney-General, and why, if one part of the law was to be called into new life, was not the other to be revived? Why did not the right hon. Gentleman, in the spirit of Mr. Pitt, put down all debating societies, as well as suppress all unstamped newspapers? The law of Mr. Pitt was not directed against unstamped publications, but against all publications; and he was sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not wish to shut out the people from instruction by means of cheap publications; and in this instance he might be benefiting the receipts of the Exchequer, but he was doing so at the expense of Ministers. They were men who were at this moment in possession of more power to do good to the people of England than any of their predecessors; for this reason, humble as his support might be, he gave it them, and whatever diminished their power of doing good gave him great pain from its consequences to the people at large. Therefore, he pressed upon them not to throw away the support of the people, upon whom they must lean in order to carry their measures into effect. They depended upon the people to resist the vast force brought against them—to stem the torrent which threatened their very existence. At a time when they most stood in need of popularity—when the people should be up and awake in their favour, they cast sway the support and denied the people the boon of cheap knowledge for the sake of the Stamp Act. He was sure it was not the wish of Ministers to deny knowledge to the people; but he believed that they were cramped and crippled by the wants of the Exchequer: he was satisfied that their fears on this score were futile, and that if the Stamp Act were repealed the Chancellor of the Exchequer would find his account in having given cheap knowledge to the people. Why were the people (he spoke of the poor) to be deprived of this valuable privilege? Say what they would they were not represented in this House; and the Corporation Bill, even if it one day became the law of the land, would not benefit them. One thing they hoped they should be allowed—the right of instructing themselves. At present they were deprived by poverty of the means of judging properly of public and legislative measures, and they did not expect that of all Governments the present would stand forward to perpetuate their ignorance. Did Ministers think that proceedings of this kind would multiply their friends? Did they not diminish their power of doing good? Their power of doing good depended upon their being able to face their adversaries; they were supported solely by popular opinion; their enemies were gathered round the Throne, and those enemies were active, powerful, and persevering, pressing them at every step, and aided and abetted by influence of property; yet, by these acts they severed themselves from their best, their true, their only allies, and for this reason, if for no other, he intreated Ministers to pause and to reflect before they ventured to take another step in the same direction as their last. Insignificant as the parties before the House might be, the existence of the Ministers depended upon the question involved in the Petition.

The Petition was brought up and read. It appeared to be from a person of the name of William Lovett, complaining of having had his printing presses unlawfully seized by the Stamp Office.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

had nothing to complain of in the manner in which the hon. Member had introduced the petition. He had spoken with calmness and temper, and while he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) explained the facts, and his view of them to the House, earnestly and effectually, he would endeavour to follow the example of the hon. Member. He was not disposed to misrepresent or misstate the smallest part of the petition; but he wished to distinguish the point before the House from the general question of the policy or impolicy of the stamp-laws as applicable to newspapers. That tax might be politic or impolitic, but it was not now brought under the consideration of the House, which was, therefore, not required to approve or to censure it. The point to be discussed was, whether Government had acted rightly or wrongly in the course adopted in the particular case; and it was not only unnecessary but injurious, as regarded a cool and just decision, to introduce into the debate extrinsic circumstances. He should not say a word as to the character of unstamped publications, but would assume that they were not of a nature to make them the object of vindictive proceedings: he wished to deal justly and dispassionately, and for this purpose he would first look at the state of the law with respect to finance. He had dealt with the whole subject as a matter of finance, and the law applicable to it was not a new one, but as old as the reign of Queen Anne, when the first stamp-duty upon newspapers was imposed. As a matter of revenue, it was his duty to see that this law, like any other of the same kind, was not evaded in any way that he could prevent. He was bound to do so, not only with a view to the interests of the revenue, but in justice to those who obeyed the law, and paid the stamp-duty, and who would be exposed to unfair competition, if such as did not pay the duty were permitted to contend with them. The fair trader had a right to claim and obtain from the Government the best protection which the law could give. He had then a double duty to perform in respect to this matter; first, as regarded the public, in taking care that no fraud was permitted upon the revenue; and secondly, on the point of principle and justice, in as far as he was bound to see that the individuals who obeyed the laws should not be undersold, and thereby defrauded by persons who broke the law. He had this double duty to perform. The hon. Gentleman had said that the Government had recently and suddenly taken upon itself a species of activity which it certainly had not practised before. The hon. Gentleman might, perhaps, mean that expression as complimentary to the Government, but if he did so, he must take the liberty of disputing the accuracy of the fact upon which the complimentary expression was founded. In this case no new course had, been taken. During the four years he had been connected with the Treasury, it had been his constant object—he would not say to vindicate the law, for the phrase was now in bad odour—but to enforce the payment of the ordinary duty which was owing to the Crown, and which it was his duty to receive from the publishers of newspapers. There was another point of the hon. Member's argument to which he must now also allude. The hon. Member had alluded to a certain Act, passed, as he said, in bad times, by a bad minister, and under political circumstances very foreign from those of the present day. Now he could not admit either the force or the propriety of such distinctions. How could the officers of the executive Government go back on every occasion to the origin of laws? How could they, when they found a law passed in bad times, venture to give it a different interpretation from its original interpretation, merely because they had the good fortune of living in different times? It was enough for him to know that it was the law. It might be matter of discussion at another time, whether that law continued proper and applicable to the present times; but so long as it remained law, a more fatal doctrine could not be laid down than that which left to the Government the power of applying it in any other manner than that which was defined in the statutebook. With respect to the particular facts of the present case, he would observe that, for some years back, there had been a continual endeavour, at some times more or less prevalent and more or less successful, on the part of certain individuals, to publish newspapers and advertisements free from duty. Whenever these proceedings had been under the notice of Government, it had been the object of Government to enforce the law against such offences, and in so enforcing it, Government was not making any attack on the liberty of the Press. On the contrary, it was making an effort to save the Press from pecuniary injury, by preventing smuggling practices in the getting up of newspapers. At present, he had only before him an account of the proceedings of the Stamp-office from the year 1831 to the present time. From the account of those proceedings it appeared, that the two individuals whose cases had been brought forward by the hon. Member for Bath, had been repeatedly prosecuted by the Stamp-office for smuggling practices of this nature. In various cases, in consequence of the different modi- fications given to their publications, the proceedings taken against them had not been effectual. In some cases, however, they had been convicted and imprisoned. Here let it be remarked that the parties did not err from ignorance. They declared in one of their publications—"This paper is published, and will continue to be published, in despite and defiance of the law." Nay, in one of their papers they went still further—"We tell the Government," said they, "what will be the result of any prosecution which they may institute against us. On the first day that the Government takes proceedings against us we shall appear—we shall then carry over the matter till the next term." They then go on describing the different evasions which they will practise till judgment is gained and execution is issued against them, and then, say they, "the defendants will decamp." Such was the nature of the opposition against which the Government had to struggle. He would now proceed a little more into details. A prosecution took place in May, 1834, against these parties for selling unstamped publications. The parties were tried, and the Government obtained the verdict of a Jury against them. Execution was issued against them, and costs were taxed. For some time there was great difficulty in levying execution upon any of their goods and chattels. At length, information was obtained that at the place where the papers were published property belonging to these parties would be found. In the ordinary course of things, writs were placed in the hands of the Sheriff, and he was ordered to levy for the amount endorsed on their backs. The officers went to Mr. Cleave's. Now, mind, this was an execution to get at the property of Mr. Cleave. It was, therefore, an execution quite as much against his goods and chattels, his chairs and tables, as against his printing presses and his printing materials. The enforcement of the penalty obtained against him was the object of Government in issuing the execution. In the case of Cleave, there were printing presses found, and above 40,000 unstamped newspapers, half-printed, in this manner [the right hon. Gentleman held up a newspaper printed on one side], and the other half to be printed next day. This was on the Thursday; the day of publication was on the Saturday following. To get rid of our seizure a man of the name of Chappel claimed the goods as his own. On the point of property, he had evidence of the most conclusive nature to prove that it belonged to Cleave, for shortly afterwards Cleave came forward and paid the amount of penalty for which these goods were seized, and it was hardly fair to suppose that Cleave would have paid such a sum had the property not been his. He also wished the House to attend to the manner in which Cleave had paid it. He had paid it in golden money; 200l. he had paid in sovereigns; and why? To prevent the ascertaining, by tracing notes, who were the parties who upheld and supported him in his repeated violations and infractions of the law. Having paid the penalty, Cleave became entitled to receive back the property seized. The half-printed papers were taken away, and on the Saturday following the other half of the papers was printed; and he then held in his hand a copy of one of them, printed in defiance of the law and in fraud of the revenue. It, therefore, became necessary to consider whether the place in which it was printed belonged to him or not. To discover whether these presses belonged to Cleave and Hetherington, the Government availed itself of an enactment of the law, which provides that every printing press should be registered by its owner with the Clerk of the Peace. Inquiry was made, and it was discovered that these presses were unregistered. They were, therefore, by law, subject to seizure. Government knew that they were at work for an unlawful purpose—namely, to defraud the revenue and the fair trader; "and we should have been unworthy of our places, and unworthy of public confidence," said Mr. Rice, "if we had suffered such a bold and scandalous evasion of the law to take place undisturbed." Under these circumstances the second seizure took place. The hon. Gentleman said, that Government had called into exercise a law made in bad times, and that those parties were taken by surprise; but so far was this from being the case, and so far were they from believing the Act of Parliament in question to be obsolete, that, while engaged in publishing, they had for a long time registered their presses, thus admitting their knowledge of the law and recognizing its efficacy. They acted thus till it became important for them to endeavour to evade the penalty of the law which they had violated, and then the supposed change of property was resorted to for the purpose of defeating the claims of the Crown, and practically annulling the verdict of a Jury. The case of Hethering- ton differed from that of Cleave in one respect—Cleave had paid the penalty, but Hetherington had not. Now, with a knowledge that those persons had attempted to evade the law, and rendered their goods liable to seizure, he should like to know how he could have defended himself if he had shrunk from his duty and omitted to sanction the conduct that had been pursued throughout every step of the progress of this transaction. The hon. Gentleman had said, that, in the present state of parties and of public opinion, it especially behoved the Government not to cast away public opinion by their acts, or take a course likely to deprive them of popularity. He was as sensible of the importance of public opinion, and as desirous of securing a sound popularity by a due discharge of his public functions, as the hon. Gentleman could be; but the question arose to what species of public opinion or popularity did the hon. Gentleman refer? To court either the one or the other, beyond the strict line of his duty he never would go. Indeed, if he knew what real popularity was, or had any just idea of sound public opinion, he did not think either of them was to be conciliated by conniving at open and undisguised violations of the law, which were not only prejudicial to the public interest in a financial point of view, but were in the highest degree oppressive and injurious to a class of persons who, paying the duty and complying with the law, had the strongest claim on the protection of the Government. He would not now enter into the general question of the stamp-duties—this was not an occasion for doing so, but he thought it necessary to declare his intention to do his duty by the fair trader, and enforce the penalties of the law against the smuggler. It would be extremely unfair if he should be held up to the public either within or outside of those walls, as one who wished to trench upon the rights or infringe the liberty of the subject, because he was resolved to do his duty by the country, and to protect the fair dealer. Injustice to the hon. Gentleman, however, it must be allowed that he made no charge against the Government, but admitted the strict legality of the proceedings. His only object was, to do justice and enforce the law, without respect to persons or opinions. Assuming that the whole stamped Press was against the Government, and that the unstamped papers were favourable to it, nevertheless, so long as the proprietors of the former performed the obligations which the law imposed on them, if other parties attempted to injure them by committing a fraud on the revenue they were entitled to protection, and it would be unjust in the Government to decline affording it. On this occasion he felt anxious to explain the grounds on which he had proceeded, and had therefore urged the presentation of the petition; he trusted he had offered satisfactory reasons for the course he had taken, and hoped that, in reference to that course, the House and the public would come to a fair, just, and favourable conclusion.

Sir Samuel Whalley

said, that the frequent and unsuccessful attempts to put down the unstamped press fully showed that the public opinion was unfavourable to a stamped press, and that means ought, therefore, to be taken to alter the law in that respect. Four hundred or 500 persons had been imprisoned within the last five years for breaches of the Stamp Laws; and when they thought of the lavish waste both of money and liberty which that circumstance showed, he hoped the House would agree with him as to the propriety of altering those laws. The law had been even a little strained to make it meet the present case. He held documents in his hand which clearly showed that the presses belonged to other parties in consequence of an agreement made so long ago as 1828, and he therefore contended that the seizure was not only impolitic, but unjust, which mulcted parties other than the real offenders.

The Attorney-General

said, after what had been said by his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he had but one or two remarks to make. The hon. Member for Marylebone said that he hoped the prayer of the petition would be listened to; now what was the petition? The petitioner stated that he had lent the printing presses to Cleave, and that they were seized. He, however, had no commiseration for Lovett; for that individual must have known that the presses were lent for the purpose of violating the law, and enabling Cleave to commit a fraud. The offence of Cleave was as much a fraud as if he had committed any other species of smuggling. The hon. Member for Bath admitted the legality of the seizure, and he (the Attorney-General) contended that it was not alone legal, but justifiable. The hon. Member was mistaken in saying that the law was dormant. So far was that from being the case, that there was hardly a printing press within the bills of mortality which was not registered. He had not been aware of the proceedings till after they had taken place, but he felt bound to say that they had his entire approbation, and that he was quite ready to take his share of the responsibility.

Mr. Edward Lytton Bulwer

asked if the right hon. Gentleman would name a day upon which the discussion upon the Stamp Duties could be taken? [The Chancellor of the Exchequer was understood to say he could not.] The hon. Member then stated that he would endeavour to bring the subject forward on Friday; and that he could state, that any plan which would leave a duty of a penny upon newspapers would be taken only as a present compromise, and that nothing short of the complete and entire abolition of the duty would satisfy the country.

Mr. Hume

said, that this was not a question of revenue, but a question of policy, whether they should go on with a system under which 500 persons had already been imprisoned. He hoped that the hon. Member for Lincoln would bring the subject forward before the Budget was produced. He thought that the reduction of the duties would be no relief to the stamped press, and that no satisfaction would be given to the people unless the whole duty on newspapers was removed.

Mr. Baines

had abstained from taking any part in the discussion upon the repeal of the Stamp Duty on Newspapers, often as it had been before the House, from an apprehension that his motives might be misapprehended; he had therefore hitherto contented himself with giving a silent vote for the repeal of the duty; he might now, however, be allowed to say, on the petition before the House, that the petitioner could be no more surprised at his printing-presses and types being seized when they were engaged in printing newspapers without stamps in defiance of the law, than a shipowner could be surprised who, having lent his vessel to carry on smuggling, found that the revenue officers had seized her. In both cases the trade was contraband, and the consequences might be expected to be alike ruinous. The hon. Member for Middlesex had stated, that nothing short of the removal of the whole duty on newspapers would be satisfactory either to the press or to the people. He (Mr. Baines) was sure that this was not the general sentiment. If Ministers were not in a situation to take off the whole tax, he hoped that they would not, on that account, be induced by any representations to the contrary, not to diminish its amount as much as was compatible with the state of the revenue. He put it to his hon. Friend the Member for Middlesex, whether he would not rather pay five-pence every morning for his newspaper than seven-pence, or six guineas a-year rather than eight; and if that would be congenial to his feelings, so would it to the feelings of the people of England. What was the situation in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was placed? With a surplus revenue of not more than 250,000l. he was called upon to repeal the duty on newspapers, amounting to 450,000l.; and not only that, but he was also told by Hon. Members, that, in addition to the 450,000l. they would insist upon the repeal of the duty on paper, which amounted to 650,000l. more: so that, with a surplus of 250,000l. he was expected to repeal duties to the amount of 1,100,000l. He hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would repeal as much of the duty on stamps as his duty to the public and to the public creditor would allow, but no more. He was afraid that there were other claimants upon the surplus revenue as well as the press. The agriculturists would expect their share of the reduction of taxes, and the manufacturers would require that the duties on the raw materials used in their trades should be favourably considered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Roebuck

admitted, that there was a necessity to enforce the law, but the law itself was bad and ought to be repealed. But as the right hon. Gentleman was determined to enforce the law, he trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would do so equally in all cases, and as the law had been enforced against the Dorchester labourers for forming secret societies, he hoped the Orange Lodges would not escape. If those lodges were punished, he might give the right hon. Member credit for his zeal; if otherwise, he should think that the right hon. Gentleman looked more to individuals than to the laws. In the particular case before the House he re-asserted that one man was punished by having his presses taken for the faults of another.

The petition to lie on the table.