HC Deb 07 February 1839 vol 45 cc156-82
Mr. Ward

rose to present a petition, which had been agreed to at a public meeting of the inhabitants of the town which he repre- sented, to which the seal of the master cutler was affixed, and which had received the signatures of 13,000 persons, including the most influential merchants and manufacturers of the town, during the few days it had remained for signature. The petition was for the entire and total repeal of the existing laws regulating the importation of foreign corn, and he felt bound to say, particularly after the notice he had given of his intention, and considering that this was a subject of such transcendant importance, a subject so vitally interesting to his constituents, that he should claim and assert the ancient right of being heard in support of the petition of those whom he represented. It was his intention to travel out of the routine of presenting petitions, to make some statements to the House, and he must most respectfully deny the existence of any order or regulation by which he could be stopped in the discharge of what be considered his duty to those who had sent him there.

The Speaker

, interrupting the hon. Member, said, that under the peculiar circumstances the House would probably think, that that was the proper time for him to make some few observations, in consequence of what had fallen from the hon. Member. It would be in the recollection of the House, that upon various occasions he had expressed his desire that some positive opinion should be expressed by the House on this subject. He admitted, that it was of the very greatest importance, and affected the rights of the people, as well as the order and practical proceedings of that House. The hon. Member had stated, that there was no rule of the House by which any limitation was put upon the extent of statements in presenting petitions. It was perfectly true, that there might be no rule recorded on the journals of the house; but he need not state to the hon. Member for Sheffield, or to any other Member of that House acquainted with the forms of Parliament, that the order in question was like a great number of those orders which were acknowledged to be of great utility and were established by the practice of the House. The rules and regulations of the House arose from the course of practice. It was the duty of the Speaker to enforce these rules, so far as he understood them; and he knew of no test by which, in cases of doubt, they could be ascertained, except by the declared opinion of the majority. When that was ascertained, it was the duty of the Speaker to see that it was acted on, and in all such cases the minority would necessarily bow to the decision of the majority. If it were otherwise, and if every hon. Member were to take his own course on any regulation or practice on which the House had no recorded opinion, it would create an inconvenience which would render the Speaker's duties, already not very light, exceedingly onerous, and raise up a serious impediment to general business. The regulation now under consideration had, if he rightly understood it, grown up with the sanction and concurrence of the House itself, and had been acted upon with, in his opinion, much public advantage during four Sessions. It arose out of these circumstances; various suggestions were made and various plans adopted with a view to remove the interruption to the public business occasioned by lengthened debates upon petitions, and several experiments were tried, the result of which was, first, morning sittings, which were established to facilitate the presentation of petitions. But this was not successful, for the morning sittings were established in February 1833, and in May of the same year, in consequence of the great accumulation of un presented petitions it became necessary to refer the subject to a committee to consider the best means by which the presentation of petitions might be facilitated. There had never been, since had the honour of being in the chair, any apparent inclination to revive the morning sittings. If debates were to be continued according to the former practice on petitions, it was for the House to consider how the public business could be conducted. Under these circumstances, the rule had grown up, and it was for the House to decide and dispose of the question. It was his duty to add not only on behalf of himself, but of those who would have the honour of filling the chair after him, that whatever rules were established, whilst they preserved the rights of all Members, and facilitated access to that House on the part of all classes of her Majesty's subjects, the House should take care to make those rules clear and explicit, so as to be a guidance for the Chair on all future occasions. He was free to confess that the leaving of the Chair anything like a discretion, whether this or that particular subject or question was of that degree of importance which justified its being entertained as a subject of discussion, was a discretion which it was unfair to leave in the hands of the Speaker, as any attempt to exercise it would involve him in personal conflicts with individual Members of the House, which would be very undesirable and might be subversive of his authority. With these observations he would leave the matter to the House to deal with it as it should think most fit and expedient, merely stating, that he concurred with all those who thought the subject one of great and pressing importance.

Mr. Ward

had listened with that respect which he had always felt for the individual who presided in the chair, to the observations which he had addressed to the House. He concurred entirely in the justice of those observations; but he doubted whether the Speaker could undertake, unless fortified by some previous decision of the House, and by a clear rule with regard to the presentation of petitions, to check and control individual Members in the discharge of what they regarded as their duty. But he, and those who thought with him on this most important subject, felt that, in a matter so deeply affecting the rights of the people, as all matters connected with the right of petitioning were, there should be no appeal to any thing but a clear and definite expression of the sense of the majority. They had no such thing here, there was nothing but an understanding originating how they did not know, of which there was no record on the Votes or the Journals—a shadow by which he did not conceive himself bound, when he claimed and asserted the high privilege of being heard in support of the petition which he presented. He would, however, lay aside the present petition, and address himself to the general question. Under the present regulations they confined themselves to the appointment of a committee who analysed all petitions, gave an abstract of their contents, and reported the number of signatures, thus preventing the petition from being heard and discussed in that House, dismissing it without remark or remonstrance, although it might contain the sentiments of many thousands of intelligent men. This was the practice that had grown up recently: and although he admitted the force and truth of what had been said, that something was due to antiquity, and that old custom gave force to rules, and induced them to look to them as the necessary guides of their conduct; yet here they were not acting on old maxims, they were not here reverting to the maxim stare super antiquas vias, this was, in fact, a departure from old maxims. There was unquestionably a good deal of inconveniance arising from protracted discussions on petitions, but if there was inconvenience in that view, he was sure there was infinitely more in a practice that occasioned feelings of distrust and disgust, and which engendered a universal feeling throughout the country, that the petitions never received that attention that ought to be shown to them. When a petition came into that House, under the weight of which the Member carrying it groaned, to which were attached the names of intelligent and thinking men, which related to a subject most vitally interesting, upon the particular measure, for instance, referred to in this very case, the Corn-laws, what reception was given to it? The Member presents it, it is read in the shortest possible manner—he might say in the most unintelligible manner, without meaning any disrespect to the clerk at the Table, who merely discharged his duty—it is then consigned to a bag, in which it is carried out of doors, and never seen in that House again. Yes, they were analysed, and the number of signatures and the nature of the petition were stated. He did say that this was a rule which the House could not and ought not to continue. There was no actual vote or record expressing the sense of the majority by which the minority was bound—there was nothing expressly recorded to check any individual in Parliament from speaking upon a petition. The consequence of this would be that every individual Member would be involved in unseemly opposition to the orders of the House, and would be forced to show something like disrespect, because he could not bow to them with that deference which all must feel anxious to pay. He would be placed between two conflicting duties, and must prefer his duty to the public to deference to orders or conventional usages on the part of the House. A contrary practice might be attended with some inconvenience; but it would not be attended with half such serious and fatal consequences to their influence throughout the country as would arise from the disruption of all the ties that connected them with those whom they represented, and which would render them unable to bring before the country the sentiments of those who had no actual and direct representation. He merely threw out these observations, he would not make any motion on the subject; but he claimed and asserted distinctly his right to speak upon petitions, and not only those which he presented himself, but those which he was called upon to support; and his right to open a discussion on any petition which any other Member might present which he thought of sufficient importance to require discussion. If any opposition was made, by persons better able to draw a line for their guidance to this course, from them the motion must come. He distinctly claimed the privilege he had stated; and with all respect for the House, and with a sincere desire to have the question settled, he would leave it in their hands. He would, as he said before, decline making any motion, but he would assert, in common with many Members, his privilege of speaking upon petitions when the occasion required it.

Lord John Russell

said, that in the present stage of the question all he would say was, that he entirely concurred with the Speaker that the rules of the House were matters of practice, and as long as a practice was confirmed by the majority of the House, and appeared to meet the general sense, it was their duty to enforce that practice. That being the case, he could not conceive how the hon. Member for Sheffield could propose to alter and overturn that practice without making a distinct motion on the subject. He therefore expected to have found at the end of the hon. Gentleman's speech, a motion to alter that practice by which alone the Chair was guided. Unless there were some rules of this kind, he could not conceive how the Speaker could pursue any other course than to enforce the established practice agreeable to the wishes of a majority of that House. The hon. Gentleman proposed to restore what he called the ancient practice of the House. Now he recognised no such ancient practice. He believed that the ancient practice of the House was, that those hon. Members who presented petitions stated the substance of the petition, the number of the petitioners, and the class of persons from whence they came. They contented themselves with this statement, and did not as the hon. Gentleman proposed to do, make a statement, not of the petition, not of the individuals, not of the class from whom it came, but a statement entirely of his own, arguments entirely his own, which arguments and statements might not be sanctioned by the petitioners themselves, and might not represent their sentiments. He believed that there were very extraordinary occasions when hon. Members presenting petitions did travel out of the ordinary course; but these occasions were so rare, and the reasons that called for them were so important, and there being no inconvenience in the particular case, the House did allow from time to time such an extraordinary departure from the ordinary practice. But the practice of the House had been altered from time to time, and must be altered according to the exigencies and the circumstances of the time, and when they had thus an extraordinary practice, as upon the presentation of petitions of the "Friends of the People," in 1793, that which grew up to be an ordinary and common practice, was in fact a total departure from the ancient practice of the House. He, therefore, said that the hon. Member was neither justified by the ancient practice of the House, nor was he justified by the present practice of the House, which was agreeable to the majority. He thought the hon. Member was standing on an irregular and inconvenient practice of a few years, which was so irregular and inconvenient that the House was induced to alter it. He did not think, therefore, that because the hon. Member claimed a right, to be heard on petitions, he was entitled to such hearing without a motion being made, and without the House agreeing by motion to alter the practice which prevailed.

Mr. Hawes

was not competent to give an opinion upon the ancient practice of the House, but he recollected a very remarkable occasion, on which a petition of considerable importance, and having reference to a question of great importance at that time under discussion, was presented by the present most distinguished Chairman himself from Edinburgh in favour of Municipal reform, and he well remembered that when it was presented it was accompanied with a very striking speech. He well recollected that the right hon. Gentleman took that opportunity to argue in support of the petition. But when the noble Lord said, that a Member might use arguments which the petitioners would not approve of, did he not see that the petitioners who intrusted Members with petitions must know their general sentiments? Their object ought to be, not to limit, but if possible to extend the right of presenting petitions. There was one word which had dropped from the Speaker from which he must dissent. The right hon. Gentleman stated, that if the House laid down a rule extending to this petition, they ought to lay down a rule to govern the whole Session with reference to all petitions, on whatever subject. He could not help thinking that this was unnecessary. Let petitions referring to the all-absorbing question of the Corn-laws be presented without any restriction whatever. He was free to admit, that there might be very great inconvenience in having discussions on all petitions, but he did not see any reason, when there was a great manifestation of public opinion in favour of one great question, that that question should not be made an exception to a general rule. He believed there was no question before the House. If it were necessary, he would move, that his hon. Fiend the Member for Sheffield be heard. He was not going to move. He would only state that he hoped his hon. Friend would persevere, and, if necessary, take the sense of the House.

Sir F. Burdett

said, it was a subject of general notice, how much petitions had augmented of late years; while those who presented them, were prepared with a speech which they were anxious to let off. Besides, the House ought to consider that speeches on petitions were necessarily ex-parte, unless they gave rise to a regular debate. After the very clear and distinct statement of the noble Lord, it was evidently quite impolitic to adopt such a proposition. At the same time hon. Members would recollect, that there were particular exceptions, and that it was always in the power of the House to afford opportunities to hon. Members on peculiar occasions. He did not see how it was possible to carry on the business of the House if the new system was adopted. He could not help adding, that he was an old enough Member of that House to recollect the time when no man ventured to do more than to open the petition, state its object, and, perhaps, refer to the respectability of the signatures; but he was not permitted to enter into what would really be a very unfair mode of statement—an ex-parte statement, which might lead to continual long discussions, or produce impressions every way contrary to justice and common sense, and greatly to the detriment of the public peace. He hoped that that novelty would not be introduced, which had grown up within his own recollection, but that the good old mode of merely presenting a petition would be adhered to. Nothing could be more unfair than that kind of statement, which laid great obstacles in the way of transacting the business of the House. He begged, therefore, that the House would not depart from the old rule, which had been found so convenient.

Sir R. H. Inglis

would not occupy the time of the House many minutes. The hon. Member for Sheffield stated, that petitions were read so formally, or inaudibly, that no knowledge could be conveyed to the House on the subject. He would ask whether the time that would be occupied in reading these petitions had been taken into consideration. The year 1833 had been referred to, as that in which the experiment had been made on the subject of petitions. In that year 10,394 petitions had been presented to the House, and he called upon the House to recollect, if the hon. Member for Sheffield was right, and that Members might not only read but provoke discussion, how much time would be occupied by presenting petitions—the same right being conceded to every other gentleman. He pledged himself that no one of these petitions could be read in less than a minute and a half, and some of them would take three or four minutes; and he would ask the hon. Member for Kilkenny to calculate what time it would take to read 10,394 petitions at that rate. If the House sat 100 days, at six hours a day, morning and night, they could not dispose of all these petitions. In fact, the whole twenty-four hours would not be sufficient to dispose of the whole. The hon. Member for Lambeth talked of the extreme importance of the petition from Sheffield. He was not one to undervalue the importance of the petitions, whether for or against the Corn-laws, or on any subject whatsoever. If this proposed rule were adopted (every hon. Member claiming the same right), how was it possible for the House to discharge any other duty than that of hearing petitions? He did not mean to undervalue the petitions of the people, but the practice now proposed was a modern one. The greatest difficulty had taken place twelve years ago, when the Roman Catholic Relief Bill was under discussion, and had since come into still more frequent practice, in consequence of the great excitement caused by the measure of Parliamentary Reform.

Mr. Hume

would take the hon. Gentleman upon his own showing, and demonstrate by the rule of three that he was wrong. He would put this case, and he would remind the hon. Baronet that he had the pleasure of sitting with him for a number of years on the Committee of Petitions, whether they had not found on several occasions two hundred or three hundred petitions identically the same except the signatures; which, he fancied, broke down the whole of the hon. Baronet's objections, because, by the rule of three, he would put down these three hundred petitions as one. The hon. Gentleman referred to numbers. He would find that they had agreed to print one only out of a series, whatever that series might be, and of counting that one only worthy of notice. If it had been the practice up stairs it had been so down in that House. When one petition had been presented on any subject, and other Gentlemen knew that, knowing they had petitions of the same nature, they had brought them up without even asking for discussion, which had been the means of saving a great deal of time. But he heard with the utmost surprise, if any thing could surprise him in that House now-a-days, the hon. Baronet, late Member for Westminster, stand up and state that this was a novel question in that House, whether the petitions of the public should be heard. What did his hon. Friend, the Member for Sheffield ask, but that the petitions of the people should be heard and discussed in the House? The hon. Baronet said this was a novelty, and why did he object to it? Because, forsooth, Members presenting petitions would make ex parte statements. Why, he never had seen a petition that did not contain ex parte statements; so that if the objection was good for any thing, it would be good against any petition being brought before the House. Did not every person who presented and spoke on a petition speak as a party man? Why, every man must have a leaning towards one side of the subject under discussion. He did not consider that argument worthy of any attention. When be first came into this House it was the practice to discuss the subjects of petitions, and it was not very long since he recollected the Speaker pointing to the clock, intimating that the time for commencing what was more generally understood to be the public business had arrived. He thought it would be right to try how far it would be feasible to hear the petitions of the people without interfering with the other duties of the House. He was rather surprised to hear the noble Lord, the Member for Stroud, objecting to such a proposition, when he recollected very well the time when the noble Lord himself took part in discussions upon petitions. For his part, he maintained that any one in that House who caught the Speaker's eye had a right to speak, whether with a petition in his hand or otherwise—thus there was no limit to the extent of his speech, but his own discretion. It was upon this view of the case that he bad urged his hon. Friend not to move a resolution on the present occasion, as by his doing so he would be unnecessarily compromising an undoubted privilege of the House. The feeling throughout the country was very strong upon this subject. He had heard it said at many public meetings, "What was the use of petitioning Parliament, when it was notorious that neither the petitioners' names nor their abode, nor the subjects of their petitions was heard by the House, but that they were all huddled upon the table, and then into a bag, without any notice or ceremony whatever?" He trusted that some deference would be paid by the House to the feeling of the country, and that they would not attempt to be too stringent in a matter of this kind.

Sir Robert Peel

did not consider that there existed any question in the minds of the Members of the House generally as to the propriety of the rule which the Speaker had enforced in reference to the presentation of petitions; and every one, he was sure, must feel convinced that, in any rules which Mr. Speaker adopted, he acted according to what he conscientiously thought most conducive to the convenience of the House. They had various important duties to perform—the duty of hearing petitions—the duty of legislation—the duty of examining the expenditure of the year —the duty of discussing great constitutional questions. Human strength was limited; there were limits to the time which could be devoted to the performance of those duties; and he, therefore, considered, that it was absolutely necessary that a compromise should be made between these various calls upon them, with a view of getting through the greatest quantity of business of all kinds to the satisfaction of the country. He admitted, that it was one of the most important duties of the House to receive the petitions of the people; but was it necessary also for them to listen to long speeches, and to enter upon long discussions, upon the presentation of each petition? The public had an undoubted right to present petitions, and it was unquestionably the duty of the House to hear those petitions; but he also apprehended, that the House had a right to determine in what way it could most conveniently discharge that duty. When the strict constitutional principle of reading petitions was talked of, he believed, that were that constitutional principle to be strictly adhered to, every petition should be read at the table by the clerk, and not by any Member, and that the House should attentively listen to it; but not, he apprehended, to any speech which a Member might think proper to introduce on the subject of it, or to any acrimonious remarks that it might give occasion to between different Members of that House. The hon. Member for Kilkenny said, that his hon. Friend, the Member for Oxford University was wrong in the statements he had read, and that he could prove him so by the rule of three; and then, to show what confidence should be placed in him as a calculator, the hon. Gentleman went on to state, that he had put down three hundred petitions as one. Now, in his opinion, it was quite a different matter to print only one petition out of three hundred, and to read only that proportion of petitions when presented. It was all very well for the hon. Gentleman sitting in Committee, with all the petitions before him, and full liberty to examine and compare them all, to say, "There are three hundred petitions all alike, so we need only print one of them;" but were the hon. Gentleman's powers of intuition in all respects equal to his powers of calculation, so that he should say, when another hon. Member presented a petition, "I strongly suspect (either at sight of the outside or by the smell) that your petition corresponds with another which has already been read, and therefore it, shall not be read?" And if it were not in the power of the hon. Member so to prejudge the contents of his petition, or if there were some verbal alterations in it, so as not to bring it within the exact light of a copy, how, he would ask, could the hon. Gentleman perform his constitutional duties if he did not hear each and every petition presented to that. House read? He apprehended, that this was a duty by no means limited by any consideration of the number of signatures attached to a petition, nor of the subject of it, nor the place from whence it came; it was their duty to receive from the remotest part of England or Ireland every petition which might be sent in, and to give them equal attention when read at the table. And even after this rule was once established, supposing parties were to choose to embody arguments in the shape of a petition; and, in fact, to present pamphlets on all sorts of subjects to the House, desirous, out of respect to the House, not to limit their expressions to simple prayers, but rather to enlighten the views and understandings of the Legislature by elaborate arguments on the subjects, it would still, he apprehended, be the duty of Mr. Ley to read those petitions, however lengthy; in a clear and audible voice, and for the House to listen attentively to them. But were the contents of petitions received with any attention when they were read at the table? From his own experience, he must say that on many occasions of this kind, although the House had given its best attention to a fine speech from the Member in presenting his petition, the petition when it came to be read was read amid universal inattention to its contents. It appeared to him, therefore, that the object of hon. Members who mooted this subject now, was not to get a hearing for petitioners but for themselves. But he would ask, what right had Members to go into a paraphrase of petitions presented by them; would not the prayers of the petitioners, expressed in their own simple language, even though in many cases ungrammatical and incorrect, be far more to the purpose, and far more constitutionally heard? This, then, he would suppose, was the strict letter of constitutional right in respect to petitions, that they should all be read at length; but how was it in other matters of Parliamentary duty, as the reading of bills, for instance. Bills were said to be read a first, and a second time, though it was well known not a word of their contents were read to the House. He apprehended, that every Member had a right to ask that a bill should be read a second time, and that every Member had farther the right, if he chose, to insist that the one hundred and thirty-nine clauses of the Stamp Consolidation Act should be read at length. But what, he would ask, would be the effect of the adoption of such a course? Why, the whole time of the House would be occupied, and little or no business would be done. The present practice was far better, and all the Members waited till a bill was printed, to read it themselves. He ventured to say the same of petitions; and if a petition were to come from men of high authority, upon any important subject, supporting their views by arguments, those views and those arguments would be far better appreciated and understood by Members perusing the petitions in print, than by hearing Mr. Ley read it, viva voce, at the table, at the end of an animated debate. According to the strict rule of the House, he believed, that any Member had a right to have a petition read by the clerk at the table; but only suppose this privilege were carried to an extreme extent, and that upon a night when an important motion was to come on, which any parties might be interested in defeating, an hon. Member were to come down to the House with five hundred petitions, and insist upon having them all read. The true principle to walk by was, that of mutual forbearance; and it should be recollected by all parties, that legislation, as well as the receiving of petitions, was amongst the duties of the House. And he thought, that if the House were to take more pains to make its legislation efficient as it went on, it would go the surest way to meet the approbation of the country. It was notorious, that there was no nation upon the face of the globe in which the legislation was conducted more slovenly than in England, for there was hardly a single measure brought forward, but in the next Session another measure was introduced for the purpose of amending it. Indeed, there were often measures brought forward for the purpose of amending the amended acts. He was sorry this question had been brought forward that evening, in such a manner, because he was not quite sure what strict rule it would be proper to adopt, if the course held out were adhered to, and he did not wish to enforce any rule of the House against the general feeling of the country. At the same time, however, he must say, that if the strict constitutional rights spoken of by the hon. Member opposite were to be enforced, if the ride of their proceedings were to be "every one for himself," it would lead to endless confusion and loss of time, and become absolutely necessary to appoint an hour after which no petition should be received, which would, undoubtedly, lead to the exclusion of many petitions altogether. Again, on the other hand, he could not allow any Member of the House to select any particular subject in favour of which it might be proper to exercise this constitutional right to the exclusion of others. He maintained, that in the eye of Parliament, all petitions were on an equality—all petitioners on an equality—all subjects on an equality—and he would not allow any one class of petitioners to claim exemption from duties which were made to apply to all others.

Mr. Ward

thought, the right hon. Baronet had met, in a very unfair and uncourteous way, the observations of a man who but very seldom trespassed upon the time of the House, in the discharge of what he conceived to be a most important public duty; and he could only say, that he was not to be deterred by any such observations from doing what he conceived to be his duty. The right hon. Baronet seemed to impute to him (Mr. Ward) a wish to make distinctions between petitions; now he never said anything of the kind, though, he believed, his hon. Friend behind him had said something like it, but which he was sure must have been understood by all who heard him to have been intended ironically. If the right hon. Baronet perceived any intention on his part to break through an old established rule—but a rule which he maintained did not exist, he begged to say, that all he wished was, to see a clear and intelligible rule laid down, by which all might be guided, and which the country might understand; and until that was done, let them revert to what he considered the practice of the House for the last twenty years.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

disagreed with the statements of the hon. Gentleman who spoke last, that the new rule respecting the presentation of petitions had given great dissatisfaction to the country. If there were any dissatisfaction on the subject, he thought it must arise from a misinterpretation of the practice of the House, under which the hon. Member seemed to labour. The hon. Member said, that petitions ought to be read; but surely that was not what the hon. Member aimed at by mooting the subject; but rather that Members should have an opportunity of making speeches on presenting petitions. Then, it was complained that petitions were brought up without any note or ceremony; and thrust into a bag, and carried away, nobody being a bit the wiser; but the hon. Member, in making this allegation, showed himself to be misinformed of the practice of the House, and strangely neglectful of his duties as a Member of Parliament, more particularly to all those constituencies who had intrusted him with petitions to present. The hon. Member ought to be aware, that all public petitions presented to this House were referred to a Committee, who examined and classified them, and printed such of them as they deemed advisable; and, moreover, that any Member presenting a petition had a right to move, that it be printed, and to give notice, that he should bring the subject of it before the House. This was a privilege which he had claimed, and other hon. Members near him, and he thought it was a course far more satisfactory to the parties themselves when they came to consider of it, than the old plan. With respect to the subject of the Corn-laws, no one, he should think, could doubt, after all he had said about it, that it was a question upon which he was most anxious that the fullest inquiry should be had, and the fullest justice done to all who came forward with representations in reference to it. But only let the hon. Member compare the present practice of the House with that of a few years back. He well recollected in the year 1832, hearing an hon. Baronet complaining in that House, that he had come down early day after day for twenty-four days in succession, with a petition to present, in hopes of getting his name on the Speaker's list; but that there always happened to be two or three down before him, and that tie discussions which took place on these two or three petitions, entirely excluded his, and that as was seen for three weeks or a month together. Now, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton had given notice of a motion for Tuesday week, that certain parties be heard at the bar against the Corn-laws, and they were informed that several hundred petitions were likely to come up in the meantime in support of that motion. According to the present practice of the House, all these petitions would be received and referred to the committee, by which they would be classified and arranged, the number of signatures attached to them stated, as well as the places from whence they came, and the circumstances under which they were presented; all which information, both on one side and the other of this question, would be in the hands of every Member of the House before they came to debate the motion in question. On the other band, suppose the former practice of the House were recurred to, what would be the consequence? Why, two or three petitions, perhaps not so many, might be presented every day, coupled, it was true, with eloquent speeches from those who presented them; but when the House came to the actual discussion of the question to which these petitions referred, they would be utterly uninformed as to the number of petitions on each side of the question, the number of their signatures, the places whence they were addressed, and the precise nature of their prayer. It appeared to him, that if the former practice were recurred to, they must have morning sittings for the reception of petitions, which were known to be inconvenient in many respects, or that the public business must be set aside altogether.

Mr. Villiers

was very sorry to hear the acrimonious manner in which that question was discussed. It was a question of mere dry detail, and he never saw the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth, use more vehement gesticulation. He confessed, the present arrangement was very convenient for the Members themselves, but was also very unsatisfactory to the public at large. It is no doubt very hard and very unfortunate that a Member should come down night after night, and yet have no opportunity of presenting his petition. The system which his hon. Friend (the Member for Sheffield) proposed would add greatly to the labours of individual Members, but the present system very much dissatisfied the country. The public said, "We leave our businesses—we deeply consider these petitions—we write to our representatives; no doubt the petitions are presented, but we hear nothing of them; we see nothing of them in the papers. Then what is the use of our so losing our time?" Now, it was impossible to deny, that last year this subject was one of general complaint. He had felt the inconvenience himself, and he had been answered that the public business had been advanced by it. But he never had heard any answer made to what had been replied to that—"What is public business? What do you do when you get to the public business? We have been sitting here night after night, watching the proceedings, and we find that the two hours following are occupied by not very pertinent questions, or by personal discussions, which were by no means of national importance." That was confirmed by the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, as to the slovenly manner in which legislation was carried on. It was clear that the greater portion of one Session was occupied in rectifying the errors of the previous one. One point deserved notice, and that was, that the proposed plan would afford an opportunity of discussing questions which could not otherwise meet due consideration when all discussion was reserved for one night's debate. The people of England had not time to devote themselves to political matters. It was necessary that the attention of hon. Members should be directed to these matters by repeated discussions, in order that they might come to a due understanding of them. Many of their errors had arisen from their over-hasty legislation, and he hoped an opportunity would be afforded of discussing these questions more fully, before proceeding to legislate on them. It was merely a question between the convenience of Members and the wants and exigencies of the country. If the House made up their minds to attend to the public business he did not believe, that these complaints would have been made, and if that was done now he thought this claim would be withdrawn. But with the testimony of the hon. Baronet, to the unsatisfactory way which the public business was conducted, it could not be expected that the people would be contented.

Sir De Lacy Evans

said, having a pe- tition of the same nature as the hon. Member for Sheffield, he must support the motion. He certainly must admit, that inconvenience had occurred in former years from the public business being delayed, but, on the other hand, he must say the inconvenience had since been carried to a greater extent the other way. With regard to his own constituents he must state there was a feeling of great dissatisfaction on the subject, and they had intrusted him with several petitions, which they had instructed him to withdraw if he was not allowed to state their representations. It had been said it was important to economise the time of the House, and so it was, but then upon party discussions the people saw there was an extreme and lavish loss of time.

Mr. Brotherton

said, there was no man more anxious to save the time of the House, but he could not concur in what had been urged by his hon. Friends around him, for though he believed that there was some dissatisfaction on the subject of petitions, he was persuaded that arose from the public mind having been misinformed as to the facts. It had been represented, that petitions were merely thrown into a bag—such was not the truth. Every hon. Member had a right to state where the petition came from, who were the petitioners, and what was the allegation. The hon. Member for Greenock had last night, in presenting a petition, occupied a considerable time in stating its allegations—besides which, any Member might name a subsequent day for the discussion of the subject of a petition which he was anxious to have more fully considered, without infringing the rule of the House. It has been stated, he knew, in many parts of the country, no matter how contrary to truth, that the petitions of the people have been treated with contempt. This statement he never allowed to he made, without contradicting, in a manner that his knowledge of the proceedings of this House enabled him to do; and from that knowledge he knew that the petitions of the people fared much better than when the former practice was followed. He must say, that some ten or a dozen of Members monopolized to themselves the right of taking up the time of the House with petitions. Indeed, such Members as himself never could get time to speak on the presentation of petitions. Under all the circumstances of the case, he thought it much better that the present system should be kept up; he therefore would give his vote to keep the rule as it at present stood.

Mr. Parker

, until he heard the subject discussed, thought that petitions were too much neglected under the present system; and, even now he was of opinion that some new plan might be adopted which would give greater satisfaction to the public. He was not, however, prepared to say, that under the present circumstances, the rule of the House should be departed from.

Mr. Ward

supposed he must present the petition, for the discussion had left the question where it was at the beginning. The same course which he pursued, reluctantly, but under a sense of duty, would be adopted by some other Member to morrow night; for no other alternative was left to those who thought with him, since the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) abstained from making any motion on the subject.

Lord John Russell

must say, that he thought it was the duty of the hon. Gentleman either to submit to the rules of the House as laid down by the Chair, or to bring forward some motion of his own on the subject. It was perfectly competent for the hon. Member, or for those who thought with him, that under the present mode of proceeding sufficient attention was not paid to the petitions of the people, to say that the rules and practice ought to be altered. But he did not understand, when the Speaker had laid down what the rule and practice were, that the hon. Gentleman should not agree to abide by the rule and practice, or make an attempt to alter them by a vote of the House; for he now seemed to be acting the part which was imputed to the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth, and setting his own authority and decision against a decision which was apparently in conformity with the opinion of the House. He must say, therefore, that he did not think the hon. Gentleman had pursued a course consistent with the respect which he ought to pay to the House on this subject. But as the question had been now discussed, and as he thought the House had heard full and sufficient reasons to induce them to persevere in the present practice, he did not wish to add to the arguments which had been adduced, but shortly to state what was the vote to which he now proposed that the House should come on this subject. He did so on the ground that the hon. Gentleman having stated, that he would persevere in discussing this petition, and that it was his belief that others would also make speeches in presenting petitions on future nights, the Speaker must be placed in the invidious, and, he must say, unfair position, of calling a Member to order who transgressed the usual practice, without its being ascertained whether the House was willing to support him or not in that proceeding. That was a position in which he thought the Speaker ought not to be placed. As to the question itself, he would only refer to what had been urged by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, (Mr. Villiers). That hon. Gentleman had asserted that the public business was of little importance, and he gave an account to his constituents of the proceedings of the House, which was not very respectful. Now, he appealed to the hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. Hawes) if petitions were discussed until eight or ten o'clock in the evening. The hon. Member had very properly last year called attention to the subject of metropolitan police, and in concurrence with the Committee had drawn up a very able report on the subject. He (Lord John Russell) was about to introduce bills very much in conformity with that report. But what would the hon. Gentleman say if he (Lord John Russell) were obliged to declare at the end of the Session, "I consider this a subject of great importance, but the House was so occupied in debating petitions without coming to any result, that it was impossible to bring in any bills, or to have the matter fairly discussed." Would that, he asked, be a satisfactory result to the hon. Gentleman or his constituents? Therefore, as well for the sake of the reputation of the hon. Member as for other considerations—for the convenience of the House, and that the Speaker might have some rule to go by—he moved "That this House adhere to the established practice with respect to the presentation of petitions, as laid down by Mr. Speaker."

Mr. Leader

wished to know what the established practice was, because there appeared to him to be some dispute with respect to the matter. For his own part, he asserted that every Member had a right upon the presentation of petitions, to state what his opinions were on the subject. When a petition was presented, the ques- tion was put that it be received, and he should like to know whether Members bad not a right to speak upon that question. There could be no doubt that they had, and it would be a most unjust interference with the privileges of Members to attempt to prevent them from speaking. He maintained that they had the right, and those who asserted that they had not according to the practice of the House, were bound to show what the established practice was. If hon. Members consulted their own convenience, they would think rather harshly of those who would introduce a practice inconvenient to them. But he would in-treat hon. Members to bear in mind that the chief duties they had to perform, were to hear the grievances of the people, and, if possible, to redress them. By adopting the motion proposed by the noble Lord at the head of the Home Department, the House would be preventing the people from petitioning at all, because they would feel it to be utterly impossible to do so with success. The right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Board of Trade had said, there was no dissatisfaction in the country on this subject. Why there was actually a petition from the inhabitants of Westminster at this moment complaining that their petitions were treated with the respect which they merited. The other day, at a meeting at Manchester, attended not only by men of Manchester, but by delegates from almost all the great towns of this country, when he stated the manner in which the subject was treated by the House, there was one universal shout of indignation, and every possible manifestation of disgust. The people knew very well how their petitions were treated by the House, and he was very well assured that three or four nights discussion on the matters of their petitions would have a far more beneficial effect on the country, than the present practice could possibly have, of printing the petitions, and then distributing them into the hands of Members, many of whom never looked upon them. He would caution the House against adopting the course which they seemed about to pursue. If they would not receive the petitions of the people, and permit them to present them, they would drive the people to other and unconstitutional means of making known their grievances. There were two Conventions sitting in London at this moment. Did the House think that those persons would take the trouble of coming to London at great expense, if they considered that their petitions were not received by the House as they ought? The very fact of those two Conventions sitting, proved that there was great dissatisfaction prevailing in the minds of persons in reference to the way in which their petitions were received by the House. He did trust that the House would not adopt that course, which would deny to the people the right to petition, and the Members the liberty of speech.

General Johnstone

begged to draw the attention of the House to the fact that this was a motion without any notice of it. If the petitions of the people were only to be laid on the Table of that House, and not looked at, nor their contents discussed, God only knew what was to become of the country. He trusted, that this motion would not go to the vote on the present occasion.

Admiral Codrington

said, that this was in truth a motion for rejecting petitions. Such a motion as that could not fail to bring on a debate, and he for one could not understand how the noble Lord would be able to carry his motion into execution after he had succeeded upon it.

Mr. Hume

entreated the noble Lord to look at the consequences of the House coming to the resolution he now proposed for adoption. If he would only look at the misconstruction that such a motion would be subject to, he felt, that the noble Lord would be the last man to subject himself to the effect of such misconstruction. This motion would certainly interfere with the right of the people to petition as well as with the liberty of speech; and it would be far better for the noble Lord not to press his motion at present, but to give notice of it for a future day.

Lord John Russell

said, that the hon. Member for Sheffield had left him no alternative.

Mr. Jervis

hoped the noble Lord would not press the motion to a vote on this occasion. Rather than that should be the case, he hoped the hon. Member for Sheffield would withdraw his petition for the present, so that this subject might hereafter be properly discussed. He for once wished, that Mr. Speaker should not be left in the invidious situation of having frequently to interrupt speakers. There was nothing tangible in the present rule, and if this motion were carried, Mr. Speaker would have to be continually referred to to state what the rule was; and how were Members in future Sessions, for instance, to know what the rule was, when perhaps the present Speaker might not then be Speaker. As a matter of prudence, he hoped the present motion would not be put to the vote.

Mr. Ward

had no wish to drive the noble Lord into a hasty decision, and, therefore, he should have great pleasure in withdrawing his petition, and presenting it on any future day, that might be more convenient to the noble Lord.

Mr. Horsman

did not regard this as a discussion against hearing the matters of petitions discussed generally, but a discussion against hearing the Corn-law petitions discussed. As long as the discussion was on the question generally, he took no part; but now that he must vote, he desired to express his wish to the noble Lord along with his other friends, that he would not press this motion, which was liable to great misconstruction—a misconstruction of which the noble Lord would hereafter have great reason to complain. The right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth, had expressed himself extremely unwilling to bring forward a motion of this kind; and after all that had been said, he hoped the noble Lord would not persevere in a course that must lead to great inconvenience.

Mr. Milnes

could not accede to the observations he had heard from the other side of the House. The present question had nothing whatever to do with the presenting of petitions. It was simply whether those who presented petitions should be restrained from addressing the House. The privilege of presenting petitions belonged to the people, but when their petitions came into the House, then those privileges ceased, and the petitioners became subject to the rules of the House. He thought that the reproach from the hon. Member who had just sat down, might have been spared—that Members were afraid of the Corn-law petitions. He would rather ask whether it were not in consequence of the Corn-law petitions that this question had now been debated as it had been. As to the threat of the hon. Member for Westminster, that there was a rival parliament sitting in London, he for one, thought those societies ought to acquire a little more power before they were brought for- ward a second time as a threat to that House.

Lord Stanley

was perfectly satisfied of the absolute expediency and necessity of adhering to the rule and practice of the House, which were found, in his judgment to be exceedingly convenient, and by no means injurious to a due consideration of the petitions of the people. He was, therefore, perfectly prepared to support the motion of his noble Friend, and his only hesitation arose from this—that though all could trust to the discretion of the Speaker for the performance of his duty, he should not be placed in such a position as to leave his conduct liable to the slightest misconstruction. It was, therefore, most desirable, though every Member understood what latitude was allowed in speaking on petitions, that a rule should be laid down in a formal manner on the journals, in order to prevent the possibility of mistake. If the Speaker found any difficulty in laying down such a rule, he hoped that his noble Friend would allow him twenty-four hours' consideration as to the form in which it should be entered on the journals. But, on the other hand, as he did not doubt, from his perfect knowledge of the laws on which they had hitherto acted, that the Speaker was now prepared to state what his understanding of them was, he trusted he might take the liberty of requesting that he should state the terms in which he wished his construction of them should be conveyed. His noble Friend might then preface his motion by stating—"Mr. Speaker having laid down the rule so and so, this House is determined to abide by his rule." This course would remove all doubt, and place the matter in a clear and distinct light.

The Speaker

I can have no hesitation in stating the substance of what I collect to have been the practice of the House during the several Sessions that I have filled this chair. As to the particular words in which it ought to be described, I cannot be so secure. The first rule is, that in the event of any petition being offered to the House, complaining of individual grievance, and requiring immediate redress it should be immediately entertained and discussed. That in the event of any Member offering a petition relating to any matter which he wishes to bring under the consideration of the House, the course followed is, that he gives notice of his inten- tion to found a motion on the petition on a future day, which he names. The petition is printed with the votes, and immediately afterwards placed in the hands of Members. The great proportion of petitions is connected with subjects before the House either in the shape of notices or bills. These are presented by hon. Members, simply stating the place whence they came, the number of signatures, and also by stating as fully as they pleased, but without reading (for that is contrary to the rule) the material contents. It was then laid on the table, referred to a committee, classed with others of similar import; and in the report was given the number of signatures, the object of, and the place whence the petition came. This report was placed in the hands of Members three or four days subsequent to that on which the presentation took place. Now having stated what I understand to be the practice, I hope I may be allowed to make one or two observations upon it. I can never forget that I, as the servant of the House, only obey the instructions which I receive from the House; but so far as depends on me I have anxiously endeavoured ever since I was placed in this position to contribute by all the means in my power to introduce order and method into our proceedings, and to afford, as far as it was practicable equal justice to all persons. The advantage of the present system, as it seems to me, is, first, that all petitions are presented promptly—that their contents, the number o f their signatures, and the places whence they come are presently in the possession of the whole House,—and next, that it places all Members on an equality, for according to this practice, all Members have an opportunity of presenting petitions, and all classes of persons of forwarding them.

Lord J. Russell

said, that when the House had an opportunity of having the rule laid down by the Speaker reduced to writing, he should change his motion so as to mee the view of the noble Lord, he herefore begged to postpone it until tomor ow. Debate adjourned. [The entry on the rules of the House differing in some measure from our report of the Speaker's speech, we think it right to subjoin it. Presentation a Public Petitions:—Mr. Ward, the Member for Sheffield, having in the course of opening to the House a Petition from his constituents respecting the Corn-Laws, stated that it was his intention not to confine himself solely to the allegations and prayer of the Petition, but to enter generally into the subject, was interrupted by Mr. Speaker, who stated that such proceeding on the part of the hon. Member would be contrary to the rule which he considered had received the sanction of the House, "that no Member, upon the presentation of a petition, should be allowed to enter generally into any subject," and requested that he might receive the instructions of the House, whether this rule should be maintained. Whereupon a discussion took place, and a motion was made, and the question proposed.—"That this House adhere to the established practice with respect to the presentation of petitions, as laid down by Mr. Speaker—Whereupon Mr. Speaker was requested to state what he considered to be the rule and practice of the House upon the presentation of petitions.—Mr. Speaker accordingly stated, that any Member offering any petition to the House, states the place whence it comes, the number of signatures affixed, and also the material contents of the petition; and is entitled, if he requires it, to have it read at the Table.—That all petitions complaining of personal grievance, and requiring present redress, are entertained and discussed when presented.—That all petitions which are presented relating to a subject which the Member wishes to bring under the consideration of the House, are printed with the votes, the Member giving notice of the day on which he will make his motion at the time he presents his petition.—That all petitions which relate to any subject with respect to which a notice of motion has been given; or with respect to which any bill is in progress through the House, are referred to the Committee on Public Bills, where they are classified, and are, according to the judgment of the Committee, printed in whole or in part.]