HC Deb 16 February 1837 vol 36 cc594-7
Lord J. Russell

next rose to move for a Select Committee on a subject certainly of very great importance, but on which, at that stage of the proceedings, he did not think it right to address the House at any length. With regard to their privileges, it appeared to him that they had now come pretty nearly to what was, as he thought, a proper position for them to hold — namely, that they possessed every privilege necessary for carrying on their proceedings freely and undisturbed, while they did not wish to carry them beyond that limit. In former times it might have been necessary to pu- nish a judge for invading their privileges, because then the prerogative of the Crown had been employed for the purpose of interfering with the proceedings of the House. But those times had long since gone by, and at present it was only necessary for them to take such proceedings as would enable them to carry on their discussions or debates, and attend to the business of the country, without disturbance in the exercise of their function. These were powers which all courts ought to possess, and which all courts assumed. The question to which he wished immediately to call the attention of the House was the proceedings which had taken place in the Court of King's Bench with respect to the publication of papers ordered to be printed by the House. Now, he thought it could not be denied that the House must have a certain latitude in that respect, and that they ought to prescribe for themselves what that latitude ought to be. In ordering any papers to be printed and published, it was, he thought, hardly necessary to argue that their distribution ought not to be confined to Members of the House, because, if they took such a limit they would evidently be without the means of proceeding and judging in many cases for which they had to legislate. It was one of the most important privileges of the subject, that all men should have the right to make their complaints known to that House, and if the House received all complaints that were made, some of them which were not capable of proof might, in the eye of the law, be considered libels. But it would be impossible for the House to lay down a limit so as to prevent complaints being made to the House, and by the House transmitted to the public; if its proceedings were not known, it would be impossible for the House to legislate for the country. Then arose the question whether if the House made its proceedings in any way public, it was to do as in former times— publish them under the authority of the Speaker of the House, or in any other way? Both methods were, as he believed, publications in point of law. The issue of 1,200 copies of any report, by order of the Speaker was as much a publication as a sale of any number of copies; and he could not see, for his part, the grounds upon which the issue by order of the Speaker should be considered a fair and permitted proceeding, and the publication of them, by way of sale, and under the authority of the House, should bring the printer into a court of justice, and he be made to suffer damages by action at law. But before they came to any decided opinion on the subject, they would find it more advantageous to have a Select Committee for the purpose of stating to the House what precedents had arisen, and what was the law and practice of Parliament with respect to the publication of their proceedings. The question which had arisen was one which fairly brought the matter in dispute under the consideration of Parliament, It had originated in the publication of a report which he had himself presented to the House, not by command from his Majesty, but in pursuance of an Act of Parliament, which directed that the reports of the inspectors of prisons should be laid before Parliament. The inspectors had stated what cases of abuse they had discovered, and the reasons which had induced them to call attention to such abuses; and if they had not done so, how was that House to apply a remedy to a public grievance? There was no stepping out of their way on the part of the inspectors; no wish on their part or his who laid the report on the table to injure a private individual, and, therefore, he thought, that if in such cases it were not allowable for the House to publish its proceedings, and they were to submit to such a restraint on their power, they would be setting a precedent by which their usefulness as members of the Legislature would be very much curtailed, and in a great degree destroyed, and they would leave persons acting under their orders liable to penalties and forfeitures in the courts of law. He would not detain the House by citing any precedents now; he wished rather to wait till the Committee had made their report, and, therefore, he would conclude by moving—"That a Select Committee be appointed to ascertain the law and practice of Parliament respecting the circulation and publication of papers printed by order of the House both prior to, and since, the order for the sale of such papers."

Mr. Williams Wynn

would be very sorry to enter into any argument founded on the particular circumstances of this case, which were stronger than all others which had occurred with respect to the attempt made to limit the privileges of the House; but he must say, that if there was one case which afforded a fuller justification than others for the exercise of their authority, that was to be found in the present. The House, in consequence of complaints that had been made respecting prison discipline had passed an Act directing inspectors to be appointed, who from time to time should make reports to the House. A report from those inspectors being printed and laid before the House by the Secretary of State, in order that the report should be of service, it was essential that it should be circulated through the country. He might be allowed further to say, that it was essential also by publication to permit those who found themselves censured in any respect to defend themselves and obtain an opportunity of making a counter statement. He really felt bound to say, that this case seemed to him to form one of the best vindications that could be made out of the expediency of ordering publications of this kind to be sold, even if they had not the practice of Parliament for the last 150 years in their favour.

Motion agreed to, and Committee appointed.

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