§ Mr. Hume
presented a petition from certain electors of Middlesex residing in the village of Hammersmith, complaining of the intimidation practised upon the electors at the late election by certain magistrates of that district, who took their stand in the most conspicuous parts of the polling-booths there, for the purpose of observing how the different tradesmen of that place voted, and praying for the adoption of the vote by ballot as the only means of putting an end to such coercion and intimidation in future. He could from his own personal knowledge confirm the truth of many of the statements contained in this petition, and he knew that great inconvenience and considerable loss had been sustained by many parties in consequence of the oppressive conduct which the petitioners denounced. He alluded more particularly to the case of the keepers of public-houses, who were dependent almost on the pleasure of the magistracy for the renewal of their licences. He could prove, if it were necessary, at their bar, that in Middlesex magistrates had gone a canvassing in public-houses in such a manner as made the keepers of them feel that the renewal of their licences depended on their not resisting the will and pleasure of those who had the power of withholding them. That was an evil, however, which was not confined to Middlesex; it unfortunately extended all over the country, and the 980 House of Commons was, therefore, bound to discover a remedy for it. The hon. Member then proceeded to present a petition with a similar prayer from the inhabitants of the village of Castle Hedingham, in the eastern division of the county of Essex. That petition complained of the ross bribery which had been practised at several of the elections in that county. He could say from his own knowledge of a county neighbouring on that village, he meant Norfolk, that gross bribery had been employed by both parties at the recent election, so that the elections there were rather elections of money influence than elections bespeaking the genuine sentiments of the electors. He considered that the authors of the Reform Bill, the present Ministers, should——
§ Sir Stratford Canning
submitted, that although the House always listened with pleasure to every word which came from the hon. Member for Kilkenny, who so frequently addressed it, he must suggest that the hon. Member was then going beyond the limits usually assigned to the remarks of hon. Members on the presentation of petitions.
§ Sir S. Canning
appealed to the Chair, and called upon the Speaker to decide whether he had been light or wrong in the observations which he had made respecting the rule of the House.
§ The Speaker
If I am thus appealed to, I must state again what I have often stated before—that, when I was first appointed to this Chair, I found that great inconvenience was felt by the House in consequence of the protracted debates which took place upon the presentation of petitions. Various plans were in consequence suggested to remedy that inconvenience, one of which would have taken the petitions entirely out of the consideration of the House. The only way of getting rid of it appeared to be by adopting a morning sitting. That was, however, a proceeding which, after three years' experience, was found to be extremely inconsistent with the daily avocations of hon. Members, and I am bound, 981 with respect to myself, to say that if I should be obliged to sit here every morning, from twelve o'clock to three, for the purpose of receiving petitions, I must leave another, and a very important, part of my duties undischarged. Therefore it was, that this rule was laid down, and, as I understood, was approved and sanctioned by the House, that the proper time of discussing all petitions which had reference to subjects hereafter to be discussed by the House was when those subjects were specifically brought under its consideration. Another rule was, that any Member presenting a petition, and giving notice that he would on an early day bring the subject of it under the notice of the House, should be entitled to have that petition printed with the votes. There were, however, two cases of exception made to these rules. The first was this:—whenever an individual was assailed in point of character, it was deemed that the presentation of a petition would be a fitting opportunity for him to give any explanation or refutation of the charge that was in his power. The second case was where any thing was stated in the petition which required the prompt vindication and interference of the House. The House will see that I can have no interest in the matter beyond the convenience of the House. The House will, however, see that if the rule be not strictly drawn, and rigidly adhered to, it is no rule at all. Many things may be said on the presentation of a petition which will lead to discussion—many things, which will not produce it. On the present occasion, I was observing a neutral course; but as I am appealed to, I must observe that the hon. Member for Kilkenny is going beyond the usual rule. Whenever the House intimates to me that it is dissatisfied with that rule, and that it wishes to see that rule relaxed, I shall feel it to be my duty to place the rule again under its consideration, and to submit to any decision to which hon. Gentlemen may think it expedient to come.
§ Mr. Hume
observed, that the Speaker had stated the rule very correctly; but it appeared to him that the inconvenience arising from the observance of the modern rule was greater than that arising from the previous practice. The rule had been productive of serious detriment to the people of England, as it amounted, in point of fact, to something very like a 982 suppression of their complaints, their wants, and their wishes. Formerly, the presentation of petitions, as the Speaker would well recollect, occupied the time of the House every evening till eight or nine o'clock. In his opinion no time was lost by that practice, as a mass of information was then driven into the minds of the most inattentive Members, which produced fitting results in due season. The public, moreover, took more interest in the brief but sharp skirmishes which occasionally took place on petitions than it did in the more elaborate speeches which were discharged amid the complicated manœuvres of a grand field day's debate. He submitted that even the House itself had no right to lay down a rule, which, in point of fact, deprived the people of England, if not of the right of petition, at least of the opportunity of making their petitions known to the House and to the public. It must rest with the discretion of hon. Members themselves to determine the extent to which they would carry their remarks. ["No."] He said yes. The discretion of every hon. Member must be the only limit of his remarks. What was the object of the right hon. Gentleman opposite in calling him to order? He had stated the facts set out in the petition—he had stated the prayer of the petitioners, and what they wished to have done to carry it into effect, and he had been about to state what he had a perfect and undoubted right to state—that the country had a right to expect that those Ministers who had introduced the Reform Bill as a means of extending the right of suffrage would complete that Bill, and render it more effective, by giving immediate protection to those who were entitled to the franchise under it. He would not admit either the correctness of the right hon. Gentleman's conduct in calling him to order, or the wisdom of the order on which the right hon. Gentleman had relied.
§ The Speaker
I will not enter at present into the policy of the rule: but what is material for me is, that the same rule should be applied to all. I cannot permit one hon. Member to enlarge upon the petition which he presents, and then refuse the same permission to another. I urge upon the House that, if it wishes to depart from this rule, it ought to make me perfectly secure as to what it wishes to have done.
§ Petition laid on the Table.