HC Deb 16 March 1841 vol 57 cc305-15
Mr. Easthope

begged to move that the petition of William Baines now a prisoner in the county gaol of Leicester for non-payment of Church-rates presented on the 2d of February, be printed and circulated with the votes. He could scarcely imagine, that in a case in which the personal liberty of one of her Majesty's subjects and the religious feelings of a very large class of persons were concerned, there could be any opposition to the motion.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that the petition having been presented so long ago as the 2d of February, he thought it probable that it would have been referred to the committee on public petitions.

Mr. Easthope

said, that it was his intention to submit a motion to the House on Thursday next upon the subject of the petition, and he thought that it should be in the hands of hon. Members, in order that they might be aware of its contents.

Viscount Howick

thought, that the hon. Member had not made out a sufficient case to entitle him to call upon the House to print this petition. It would be in the recollection of the House, that the committee of which he had had the honour to be chairman, and which was appointed for the purpose of considering the general subject of printing petitions, had made strong representations to the House that petitions should not be printed with the votes, unless in those cases where the subject was not only brought under consideration, or where the matter was of pressing and urgent importance. The hon. Member for Leicester said, that this petition had not been ordered to be printed, and for anything that had been stated, it might be inferred that the committee on public petitions were not aware that this petition had been brought forward, for if they had been aware of it, there was no reason to doubt that they would have ordered it to be printed; or, if they had not done so, that they had taken that course on the ground that it contained something improper, in the shape of some reflection on the private character of individuals. He did not mean to say, that this was the case, but he said, that it was not impossible that that was the motive by which the committee had been actuated. It appeared to him, therefore, that the hon. Member had not shown that there was anything so urgent in the case as to justify a departure from the rule which had been established. It must be obvious, from the number of similar notices which were placed upon the paper, that if they did not set their faces against the adoption of the course now proposed, they must give up the general rule which had been laid down. Each hon. Member would think his own case the most important—the affairs of his own constituents those which should be first attended to, and thus, little by little they should break down the rule which had been hitherto found to work extremely well for the purposes of that House and of the public business. For these reasons, he felt himself called upon to give his opposition to the motion, suggesting to the hon. Member that he should bring the matter under the attention of the committee on public petitions, by whom, he had little doubt, it would be printed.

Mr. Easthope

had thought that there could be no possible objection to the printing of the petition under the circumstance of his having given notice that he intended on Thursday to make it the subject of a motion in the House. He begged to state that there was nothing contained in the petition that could reasonably raise the doubts and objections which had been referred to by the noble Lord. He had not imagined that he should be usefully employing the time of the House in stating the grounds on which he thought that it was desirable that this petition should be printed. In the first place, it was impossible, upon a careful perusal of the petition, to say, that there was any objection to it of the class that had been suggested, it was a mere statement of the circumstances of the case, which had led to the confinement of the petitioner. It stated the time during which he had been confined, and the reasons which had led him to suffer this imprisonment rather than comply with the demand made upon him; and it then went on to pray that the House would adopt such measures as to them should seem meet to procure his release. It was to be remarked, that this was a case similar in its nature to those in which the House had, on two former occasions, pronounced an opinion that the cause, from which the individuals who had petitioned were imprisoned, should be removed. It was a case in which, by a resolution of the House, it had been declared that such a process of the ecclesiastical courts ought not to be put in force. If he understood the object of the noble Lord rightly, it was to prevent the printing of the petition, which it was desired should be printed in order that the subject might be brought before the House, with a view to some practical relief being afforded. Believing-, as he did, that no valid objection existed to his motion, and feeling that there would be a great deal of hardship in saying to the petitioner, "your petition shall not reach the hands of all the Members of the House," he was induced, and he hoped not improperly, to press that the petition should be printed.

Mr. Warburton

hoped that the House would accede to the motion of his hon. Friend, because he thought that the case was strictly within the rule which had been laid down with regard to the printing of petitions. The rule was, that a petition might be printed when, within a reasonable time of its presentation, the petition itself was to be the subject of a motion, and, therefore, first of all, the proposition of his hon. Friend came within the rule which was prescribed. But even supposing that it was not so, exceptions might be made in cases where the individual petitioning was actually in prison. But there was a third ground, also, upon which he should support the motion. By the regulations which had been made, the House had already so narrowed the opportunities which any hon. Member of the House had of hearing a debate on the merits of a petition, compared with the old practice which prevailed, that he should be exceedingly jealous of restraining any further the already circumscribed right which existed upon this subject. He, therefore, hoped, that the petition would be allowed to be printed, and laid on the Table of the House before the day on which the motion of his hon. Friend was fixed to come on.

Lord Stanley

said, that it seemed to him doubtful whether the House should acquiesce in the motion of the lion. Member for Leicester, because this was a case in which the printing or not printing of the petition had not come under the consideration of the committee, to whom in ordinary cases the question of printing petitions was referred. It was not the case of a petition which had been presented within a short time. It had been presented to the House on the 2nd February, and within a few days, therefore, of the commencement of the Session, by reason of which the attention of the committee would almost certainly have been directed to it; and it was to be observed, that to this time that committee had not ordered the petition to be printed, although they had printed others of more recent date. The inference was, that in the petition itself some ground existed which led them purposely to abstain from printing it; and if that were really the case, undoubtedly this would be a strong ground for refusing to accede to the motion. He hoped, therefore, that the hon. Member for Leicester, in order to avoid the inconvenience that had been pointed out by the noble Lord, the Member for Northumberland, would assent that the House should direct that the petition should be printed with the votes, for the use of Members only.

Mr. Easthope

would have no objection. As he understood the hon. Member to have no objection to having the petition printed with the votes for the use of Members only, he hoped that the House would agree to the printing of the petition with the votes.

Mr. Labouchere

said, it was absolutely necessary that the House should act upon some general principle, unless a particular instance requiring an exception arose. With regard to the present petition, as it had been said, that there might be something objectionable in it, he felt bound to say, that having read it through, he found that it was impossible that any petition could be more properly worded, or less objectionable on that score to be printed, should the House think fit on other grounds to do so. The difficulty he felt, however, was this—that it was the rule of the House that no petition should be printed unless it had immediate reference to some motion which some hon. Member intended to found upon it; and he would, therefore, be very much disposed to determine his vote according to the answer which the hon. Member for Leicester might give to the question, whether or not he meant to confine his motion on Thursday to the particular grievance complained of by the petitioner, or whether he meant to enter into the other general questions which were referred to at the commencement of the petition. Here was a petition, in which the petitioner stated, that he was in prison, suffering from the existing state of the law. If the motion of his hon. Friend contemplated the release of the petitioner from prison, then he certainly thought that the petition ought to be printed; but if the motion of the hon. Member was in- tended to be a general motion on the subject of church-rates, then, he apprehended, the House could not print the petition without infringing the rule on that subject. It might be thought he was, under the circumstances, attaching too much importance to this rule, but equality in their course to all petitioners he considered essential. If, therefore, the hon. Member stated that his motion would have a retrospective effect, with a view to the relief of the petitioner from the grievance under which he now complained to be suffering, then he (Mr. Lubouchere) would have no objection whatever to vote for the printing of the petition.

Mr. Brotherton

said, it was the rule of the committee never to print petitions from individuals unless they complained of personal injury; but had the hon. Member for Leicester stated to the committee what His wishes and intentions were, he did not think there would have been any objection to the printing of the petition.

Mr. Baines

said, his hon. Friend had put the question upon an intelligible ground, when he said, that if the petition related to personal grievance it would be printed as a matter of course. Now, if being in prison, for the non-payment of church-rates was not a grievance, he did not know what could be held to be one. The fact was, that this petition was general, but the grievance was personal. There seemed to be some objection still entertained by the noble Viscount (Viscount Howick), but he thought the grounds of that objection were now very much narrowed.

Mr. T. Duncombe

said, the right hon. President of the Board of Trade had said, that as the rule had been laid down it ought to be adhered to. On that very, ground he maintained that this petition ought to be printed. The rule of the 9th February, 1839, was, that all petitions on which hon. Members wished to found motions should be printed, the hon. Members giving notice of their motions. That was the rule; and it had never been questioned until, in the early part of the Session, the noble Lord opposite had very properly called the attention of the House to the subject, and had suggested that the petitions so printed should be confined to the use of Members themselves, in case they should contain libels or matter that would be disagreeable to individuals. On that pro- position, which he thought very reasonable, the House came to no result; but he would be ready to vote for it, should the noble Lord press it at any future time. What was the stale of the case at present? The hon. Member for Leicester, seeing that the printed papers' committee had not printed this petition on which the hon. Member had given notice of a motion on Thursday, came down and called upon the House to print the petition two days before that motion would come on. The objection to the printing of the petition was, that it would be an infringement of the rule, but he maintained that, in this case, the rule had been strictly adhered to; and therefore, on the showing of the right hon. Gentleman, the House ought to accede to the printing of this petition. There were, also, other reasons why he thought it would be advisable on their part to print the petition. There already existed out of doors a very strong feeling, that the right of petitioning was narrowed and limited more and more every day—that the House were constantly encroaching upon the right of petitioning. If the printing of such a petition as this was refused, it would go to confirm the public in the belief, that their right of petitioning that House was becoming a mere mockery; in fact, it would be adding insult to the delusion which they already believed to be practised upon them.

Sir George Grey

did not think the question which had been put to the hon. Member for Leicester by his right hon. Friend was an unreasonable one, and he could not help thinking, that their means of coming to a decision would be very much increased if the hon. Member would answer it. If the construction to be put upon the rule of that House with regard to the printing petitions was to be that which had been put on it by the hon. Member for Finsbury, he could not but think, that the rule would be utterly valueless, and that the sooner it was rescinded the better. If the hon. Member for Leicester would state, that he really did mean to found a motion on the petition—if he would state, that he did not mean to bring on the general question of church-rates, but merely to attempt to redress the grievances of the individual petition—then he would at once vote for printing the petition.

Mr. Ward

did not think the rule that had been just laid down by the right hon. Baronet was at all conformable to the usual practice, which was, that on presenting a petition the hon. Member, if he wished to have it printed, was required to state, that within fourteen days he should make a motion upon it. When he remembered the manner in which petitions of the people were dealt with by that House, and that in fact they only could be debated upon such notices as that which the hon. Member for Leicester had given, he really did think it would be most unbecoming if, on any score of inconvenience or economy, which he understood to be the objection of the noble Viscount, they refused to print a petition after the strict rules of the House had been complied with, as in the case of this petition.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

understood, that the objection to printing petitions from individuals was, that, under the character of petitions, they were often in the habit of presenting certain pamphlets of their own; and that, therefore, unless the individual complained of some grievance to himself, the rule was not to print the petition except under the circumstances that had been specified. He confessed, he thought the present was a case in which the petition ought to be printed, but at the same time it depended entirely upon the answer which the hon. Member for Leicester might give to the question that had been put to him by his right hon. Friend. He did not see what mystery there was to prevent the hon. Member from making this statement. If the hon. Member intended to confine himself to the individual grievance, and not to enter into the general question of Church-rates, he did not see what objection there could be to the printing of the petition.

Sir R. Peel

said, it should be borne in mind, that since the rule was adopted that had been referred to by the hon. Gentleman, a committee had been appointed to consider the question of the whole privileges of that House, particularly with reference to the printing of papers. That committee, of which, if he was not mistaken, the hon. Members for Leicester and Bridport were Members, considering the injustice that might be done by printing libels on private character, and the embarrassments in which the House had been involved in consequence of the general practice, came almost unanimously to a resolution, recommending that all such papers should be referred to the commit- tee on printed petitions, unless incases where the subject would not admit of that delay. He was bound to admit, however, that this recommendation had not yet been adopted by the House, but he thought, that the House would be disposed to attach considerable weight to that recommendation, and to adhere to some established principle. The terms of the general notice on the journals was, that all petitions on which any hon. Member meant to call the attention of the House should be printed with the votes, the hon. Member giving notice of the day on which he meant to bring forward the motion. Now, when the hon. Member presented the petition, did he give notice of the day on which he meant to bring forward a motion founded upon the petition? The hon. Member gave notice of a general motion on the subject of church-rates, which he afterwards postponed till after Easter. He then, long after the presentation of the petition, gave notice of another motion connected with that petition. He then moved, that the petition should be printed in order to meet the motion and did not make his motion in order to meet the petition. He called on the House to print the petition, although it had been presented so long previously. He put altogether out of the question the nature of the petition. It would be most unfair to refuse to print the petition because it related to Church-rates, while it would be equally unfair to give that petition a preference over every other. It was absolutely necessary, that the House should act upon some general rule as regarded all petitions, because if they did not, the result would be most invidious, as every man of course thought his own petition of the utmost importance. The hon. Member in this respect had not adhered to the rule of 1839; and, unless he signified his intention to bring forward a motion, not on the subject of Church-rates generally, but on the particular grievance detailed in the petition, he certainly had no ground for exemption from the operation of the general rule. He thought, also, that if the hon. Member acceded to the request made of him, and the result was, that he meant a specific motion, and, therefore, that the petition was printed, then that it should be printed with the votes for the use of Members according to the suggestion of his noble Friend. But at all events, he thought the hon. Member was bound to state whether his motion would be of a general nature, or apply to the specific grievance complained of by the petitioners.

Mr. Easthope

had already stated, and stated in perfect good faith, that he did intend on Thursday to submit a motion to the House, grounded on this petition; and he now stated, with equal sincerity, that he had no intention to enter on, but a determination to abstain from the discussion of the general question of Church-rates. This led him to remark upon what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet opposite, that he ought, when he presented that petition to have stated to the House, that it was in his contemplation to give an early notice of some measure on the subject. When he presented that petition, he had it in contemplation to give an early notice for some measure connected with the general subject of Church-rates, which would also have included the consideration of the grievance complained of in this petition. Since he had given notice of that motion, however, it had been urged upon him by the parties connected with the general question to delay that motion till a more advanced period of the Session. At the same time that he acceded to this request, he felt that he ought not to delay bringing under the notice of the House the specific grievance of this petitioner, with a view to assisting in obtaining his release from prison. His object, therefore, on Thursday would be to submit a motion to the House to further that purpose, and not for the purpose of engaging them in a full and general discussion on the question of Church-rates. With regard to his motion for the priming of the petition, he avowed, that having a motion on the orders to take that petition into consideration, he did feel it a matter of course that as the committee on printing had not printed the petition, it ought to be printed, in order that hon. Members might have recourse to it in the discussion which would arise upon it on that day. Indeed, he could not help thinking, that had he entered into a discussion on that petition on Thursday next, without having previously moved that it be printed, in order that it might be in the hands of every individual Member, it would have been matter of just complaint against him that the petition was not sufficiently known, and that, therefore, the House were not in a position to take it into consideration. And he confessed, he laboured under no ordinary degree of surprise, that in a case where an individual was suffering the infliction of imprisonment, and a large and populous locality was under the deepest feeling of excitement, the House should be disposed to interpose any technical forms or slight objections, or should do others wise than give the kindest and fullest attention to the grievance complained of, with a view to its redress. He hoped, that he had made his purpose and his sentiments intelligible to the House, and he hoped also, that it would be felt that never, while he held a seat in that House, would he attempt in any unfair manner to bring on any discussion. He repeated, that on Thursday it was not his intention to bring on the general question of Church-rates, but to apply himself exclusively and entirely to the subject of the grievance complained of by the petitioner.

The Attorney-general

hoped the House would now be nearly unanimous in ordering the petition to be printed. No doubt the hon. Member for Leicester had not strictly followed the order pf the House, as he ought, at the time of presenting the petition, to have stated when he meant to bring the subject before the House. He had now stated, however, that the motion would relate to the personal grievance of the petitioner, and he, therefore, did not see, what farther objection there could be to the printing of the petition.

Viscount Howick

would not offer any further opposition, but, at the same time, he felt bound to say, that the hon. Member for Leicester would have done better had he made, in the first instance, that communication to the committee which they had the authority of the hon. Member for Salford for assuming would have led to the petition being printed.

Lord Stanley

Did the hon. Member object to the circulation, of the petition being limited to Members of that House?

Mr. Easthope

did not

The Attorney-general

concurred in the propriety of the limitation to Members of that House, because, having been invested with the unlimited power of printing, they ought to use it with the utmost caution.

Petition to be printed with the votes.