HC Deb 17 August 1835 vol 30 cc623-6
Mr. Hume

moved for leave to bring in a Bill for the Repeal of the Act 60 Geo. 3rd, c. 9, relative to the Newspaper Stamps and Political Pamphlets. He did so in the anxious hope that his right hon. Friend, who had felt it his duty to refuse to take off the stamp duty on newspapers, would assent to the motion. He was fully aware of the grounds on which his right hon. Friend refused to take off the newspaper stamps, but the same objections did not exist against the proposition he now made. There was no duty imposed by the Act he wished to have repealed; and if it were taken off the Statute-Book the revenue would not lose anything. It was one of those obnoxious measures introduced in 1819 by Lord Castlereagh, and he must say it was a disgrace to the Legislature which sanctioned it.

Mr. Wakley

seconded the motion. If the newspaper tax were taken off, and the present Act continued, the sale of cheap political publications would be prevented. After what the right hon. Gentleman had said the other night, in condemnation of the newspaper tax, and after his expression of regret that the state of the finances did not enable him to repeal it, he (Mr. Wakley) trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would consent to the present motion.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed if the motion really stood on the ground urged by his hon. Friend, he should not have been indisposed to do what was required; but as the case really stood, it was impossible for him to assent to the motion. The objection to the repeal of the newspaper tax was solely of a financial nature. As long as the revenue of the country was in its present condition, it was impossible for him to assent to the proposition. With respect to the present motion he would only observe, that he might as well remove the tax on newspapers altogether, as adopt the present suggestion. Under the operation of this Act alone were they enabled to punish the publishers and venders of unstamped newspapers. He was anxious to consider the whole subject with a view to a satisfactory result, but they were not then in a position to discuss it. Let them have their discussion on the question and he did not doubt he should be able to show that it would be better, with reference to the reduction desired, that the whole question should be entertained at once. On Friday a motion was to be made on the subject and he should then be prepared to state his views upon it.

Mr. Charles Butter

was at a loss to understand why the right hon. Gentleman should wish to preserve this Act for the sake of a Clause it contained, enabling him to enforce the stamp laws; surely he could preserve one portion of the Act, and repeal the other. The right hon. Gentleman had attempted to justify his prosecution of those who had violated the stamp laws by saying it was necessary to protect the fair dealer, but what he complained of was that the fair dealer was not protected at this moment. The Twopenny Dispatch was said to circulate 40,000 copies, and the Police Gazette nearly as many. These unstamped publications were sold for a long time without any particular interruption, to the destruction of some of the most valuable of the stamped weekly newspapers. At last a daily paper, without a stamp, made its appearance; and that having attacked the monopoly of the daily press, means were found for putting it down immediately. The question ought not to be considered as one of finance, it ought to be viewed with reference to the political education of the people. He hoped the hon. Member for Middlesex would succeed in expunging from the Statute-Book this most disgraceful relic of a disgraceful period.

Mr. Hume

was sorry to hear the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer say that he wanted the power which Lord Castlereagh had provided by the Act which went by his name; particularly as there were not less than nineteen other Acts on the same subject. He held in his hand a list of no less than 518 persons who had been prosecuted under what was called the "Trash Act;" under which any political publication of less than two sheets was liable to be seized unless stamped. He would just state an instance which would show what was the operation of that Act. When the Combination Laws were repealed, some gentleman wished to publish a cheap compendium of the existing laws on the subject, for the benefit of the poor. They took the opinion of Mr. Justice Tindal on the undertaking, and he told them that, if they repeated the publication they would be liable to be seized; and, on that ground, they were obliged to drop the proposal. Thus the present state of the law gave a power to every individual, acting under the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to put down every useful political publication of the kind. And he was certainly greatly pained to hear, in that House, an advocate for the odious Castlereagh Act, which was condemned by every individual almost in the Administration and in the House at the time, as a measure which ought never to have been introduced; and (he must do Lord Castlereagh the justice to say) which was never acted upon in his time with the severity with which it had been of late applied; the revenue was efficiently collected till Lord Grey came into office; and then came the list of 518 prosecutions, up to March 24th last. There never before that period was a prosecution instituted under the plea of that Act with respect to the stamp duty; the revenue was collected without it; and, he must say, it was shameful to think of the Government keeping the country under the operation of that Act at the present time. As, however, the right hon. Gentleman was to go into the subject on Friday, he would withdraw his motion, but he hoped another Session would not pass over without the whole being repealed. It was but policy in the Government to give the people the means of obtaining cheap political knowledge; that they might know which were good measures and which were bad; who were their real friends, and who were not; for they were told now that the other House was the only real friends to the poor; and that the House of Commons were their oppressors and their robbers; he (Mr. Hume) wanted the means of removing the bad effect of that impression; but he could not do it, nor any one else, without being subjected to convictions under that Act, which shut the doors against so much useful information which the people might otherwise obtain. He therefore intreated the right hon. Gentleman not to let another Session pass over without repealing that Act.

Mr. Hawes

thought that the hon. Member for Liskeard need not have indulged in observations of so much severity, the right hon. Gentleman having declared that he could not spare the money, and it being of the last importance to preserve the public credit.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said it had been frequently stated that, under Lord Grey's Administration, there had been 500 stamp prosecutions. It was no such thing—it had been contradicted before, and he contradicted it now. The hon. Member for Middlesex would find, if he examined the returns, that 460 or 470 of those prosecutions the Government had little to do with—they were prosecutions on the informations laid by informers.

Mr. Hume

said, that those who allowed such a law to continue in force, were responsible for its consequences.

The motion was withdrawn.