HC Deb 11 June 1839 vol 48 cc142-7
Mr. W. Williams

wished to call the attention of the House to the fact, that some days ago he presented a petition from Mr. Samuel Wells, a barrister, relative to the financial affairs of this country, which, upon his motion, was ordered to be printed, but that had not been done.

The Speaker suggested, that the hon. Member should renew his motion to have the petition printed.

Mr. Williams

begged to move, that the petition be ordered to be printed forthwith.

Sir G. Clerk

said, the hon. Member for Coventry had stated no reason why the petition should be printed, nor had he intimated that it was his intention to bring forward any motion founded upon the petition. He could not think, that it would be wise for the House to order petitions of this kind to be printed at the public expense. When grievances were complained of, the House was bound to give every facility to the printing of petitions, if motions were to be founded upon them; but it could not be proper for the House to order financial pamphlets to be printed at the expense of the public. This petition made suggestions relative to the management of the revenue, and complained of no grievance; he thought it would be highly improper for the House to sanction the printing of such a document. In his opinion, it ought to have been forwarded, not to the House, but to-the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Williams

said, that when he presented the petition he had distinctly stated, that he would call the attention of the House to the statements which it contained on Tuesday next.

Lord J. Russell

agreed with the hon. Baronet opposite, that there was a wide distinction to be made between petitions complaining of actual grievances and petitions presented merely for the purpose of giving publicity to the theories of private individuals. He thought it would be highly improper to order the publication of petitions which could only be considered as the speeches of individuals who, from not being Members of Parliament, were unable to state their views and opinions personally in that House. If the petition alluded to came under that description, it certainly would not be proper to order it to be printed at the public expense.

Mr. Williams

contended, that it was not a speech, but a petition on a subject of the highest importance, and containing matter well deserving the attention of the House.

The Speaker

said, that when the hon. Member for Coventry presented the petition he had given notice, that it was his intention, on a subsequent day, to call the attention of the House to the statements which it contained. The hon. Member had then moved, that the petition be printed, and to that motion the House at the time assented. The committee on petitions had, however, refused to order the printing of the petition, and the question now was, whether the order of the House should be discharged. The order having once been made, must be complied with, unless rescinded.

Sir G. Clerk

would move that the order be now discharged.

Mr. Williams

hoped the hon. Baronet would state some reason in justification of that motion. He believed, if the hon. Baronet would read the petition, he would find, that it related to matters worthy of the gravest consideration, and that it contained a statement of facts founded upon Acts of Parliament. If there was anything disrespectful to the House in the petition, or anything improper, he should be glad to have it pointed out. He knew Mr. Wells to be a most respectable person, who had devoted much of his time to the subject of finance, and, as he intended to call the attention of the House to the petition he had presented, he trusted the hon. Baronet would withdraw his motion.

Mr. Wakley

believed, that the hon. Baronet opposite had no intention to read the petition himself, and that he was inclined to prevent every other person from reading it. He had no doubt that it contained matter worthy of the most serious consideration, for Mr. Wells had devoted much of his attention to the subject of finance. The House, too, had ordered the petition to be printed, and let hon. Members consider what the effect would be if its authority was to be set at defiance or its orders disregarded. In this case the House had ordered a petition to be printed, but here was a committee placing itself above the House, and refusing to allow the order to be complied with. In his opinion, hon. Members were not aware of the effect on the public mind of the manner in which petitions to that House were presented. The people were complaining, and justly, of the way in which their petitions were treated; and the restraints which were imposed upon hon. Members of that House, relative to the presentation of petitions, were rendering the other House of Parlia- ment, instead of that House, the popular branch of the Legislature. The other House of Parliament was ever ready to attend to the complaints of the people, and to allow their petitions to be read and discussed, but in that House, hon. Members were not even allowed to read the petitions which were intrusted to them. If an hon. Member attempted to read a portion of a petition in that House, or to state at any length the complaints it contained, he was instantly assailed with groans, and a noise was raised, which absolutely prevented him from calmly directing his mind to the complaints of the petitioners. Was that fair to the public, or was it possible that such proceedings could have any other effect than that of lowering the House in the estimation of the country? If a Member said he would read any petition intrusted to him, he immediately found himself addressing empty benches—no one would listen to him. He hoped the resolutions of the House relative to petitions would be reconsidered and revised; for if they were not altered, so as to allow the complaints of the people to be fully stated, that House must fall into disrepute with the country, and the House of Lords become the popular assembly. How were petitions treated? They were laid on the Table, backed by Mr. Ley, and then sent into a room where they were never more heard of. Ay, they went before a committee, and that committee followed the example of Mr. Ley, few of them being printed, and nothing being done to make them public. In his opinion, every Member ought to be allowed to state fully the nature and object of the petitions which had been intrusted to him, and he hoped the day would come when petitions would be discussed also.

Colonel Conolly

said, it was evident that the hon. Member for Finsbury was totally ignorant of the mode in which the Committee upon Petitions disposed of the petitions presented to that House. So far from obstructing the printing of petions, or interfering with the orders of the House, the Committee afforded every facility to the publication of the complaints of the people. He did not think it was fair to say that the Committee treated petitions slightly, for every one acquainted with the subject knew that the reverse was the case. From his own experience, he was bound to say that, in his opinion, the present system was the best, and if they were to discuss petitions, it would be impossible to transact the public business,

Mr. Aglionby

said, the House had already ordered the printing of the petition, and he was, therefore, of opinion that the hon. Baronet by the rules of the House was bound to give notice before bringing forward a motion for discharging that order.

Sir G. Clerk

had no objection to withdraw his motion for the present, and to give notice for a future day, if such was the wish of the House. He was perfectly sensible that if the attention of the House had been called to the petition at the time it was presented, it never would have been ordered to be printed. The reason why it had escaped the attention of the House was well known. Hon. Members could not fail to recollect the state of the House on Friday. Before hearing counsel on the Jamaica Bill the House was nearly empty, and the Members who were present were employed in conversation, as all the public business had, most strangely, been disposed of. It was at that time the petition had been presented, and the motion for printing had in consequence escaped the notice of the House. The votes of Friday, the House would observe, contained no order for the printing of the petition, for it was only stated, that it was ordered to lie on the table. It was not till the votes of Monday were published, that they found an order for printing the petition. He did not mean to say, that the petition contained anything improper, nor did he question in the very least the respectability of the petitioner; but he must again repeat, that the document was not of that character which entitled it to be printed at the public expense. When petitions were presented, complaining of grievances, the House was always ready to give its attention to the prayer of the petitioners, and when a motion was to be founded upon a petition, there was never any unwillingness to allow it to be printed. But if the House were to allow those who were unable to obtain such publicity for their opinions as they might wish—if they were to allow every theorist and speculator, whether in finance, medicine, or law, to forward pamphlets to that House in the shape of petitions, and if they were to order those pamphlets to be published at the public expense, they would, in his opinion, be doing great injustice to those who had signed the 8,600 petitions which had been presented during the Session, and who were legitimate petitioners, because they complained of grievances, and asked for redress. As he said before, the petition ought to have been forwarded to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and as he now saw the right hon. Gentleman in his place, perhaps, he would have the goodness to state whether he was of opinion that the petition was of sufficient importance to be published at the public expense.

Mr. Freshfield

would not allow what had fallen from the hon. Member for Finsbury relative to the Committee on Petitions to pass without notice. The hon. Member was far from being correct when he said that the petitions sent to the Committee were never afterwards heard of. The Committee had already presented to the House twenty-seven reports upon petitions, each of which was of considerable bulk.

Mr. Yates

said, the Committee examined fully and with great care the petitions confided to them, and always ordered the publication of every petition which they considered important, or which they deemed it necessary that the House and the public should be made acquainted with.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, a copy of the petition had certainly been forwarded to him, and he ought, therefore, perhaps, to be the last person to raise any objection to its being printed. He could not, however, help saying, that if the House were once to sanction the printing of petitions complaining of no grievance, and only making suggestions, they would soon, in his opinion, have cause to regret such a proceeding. It was not merely the expense which he objected to, but such a course, if once adopted, would not fail seriously to obstruct the public business. He thought there could be no difficulty in postponing the motion; but if it was postponed, hon. Members would do well to consider the nature of the paper before voting for its being printed.

General Johnson

understood that the order for printing the petition had been made on Friday, and he could not think that it was fair to move that the order be now discharged. Surely notice ought to have been given.

On the question that the order be discharged, the House divided—Ayes 81; Noes 23:—Majority 58.