HC Deb 25 March 1841 vol 57 cc590-6

Mr. T. Duncombe moved that the petition of Samuel Cousins, of Old Cross, in the parish of St. Andrew, in the county of Hertford, complaining of not being able to obtain a copy of the register of electors of the county of Hertford, presented yesterday, be printed with the votes for the use of Members.

Viscount Howick

hoped that the House would not agree to the present motion, because it would be establishing an important principle, which would be attended with great inconvenience. A few years ago petitions presented to that House were printed, as a matter of course. A great majority of the petitions that were presented were moved to be printed, as a matter of course, with the votes. In order to check that practice a different system was adopted; a select committee was appointed to consider what petitions should be printed, and by these means the mass of printing was greatly reduced, and an important security was obtained against printing what was improper. After a time, a practice began to prevail, whenever it was intended to bring the subject on which a petition treated before the House, to move that the petition should be printed with the votes. At first, few of these motions were made, but, by degrees, hon. Gentlemen became dissatisfied at having their petitions printed with the mass, wished to have an exception made in their cases, and the number of petitions that were printed with the votes began gradually to increase. During the last Session, the committee on printed papers having adverted to this increase, drew the attention of the House to the practice that was growing up, and stated, in the report, their opinion, that before a petition was printed, it should be ascertained not only that the subject was to be brought before the House, but that it was of such an urgent nature that it would not admit of the delay of being referred to the committee. This report was agreed to unanimously at a meeting at which Dr. Lushington, Mr. Goulburn, Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Warburton, Sir George Clerk, the Solicitor-General, Lord Mahon, and Sir Edward Sugden were present. It must be recollected, too, that the most flagrant case of a libel printed by that House was a calumny against the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, contained in a petition presented to the House and ordered to be printed on the motion of an individual Member. The hon. Member for Finsbury in the last discussion had referred to the rule laid down by the late Speaker, Lord Dumfermline, by whom it was undoubtedly said that, when a motion founded on the petition was to be brought forward by an hon. Member, it was printed for the use of the House. But the late Speaker must have meant only that it would be printed if the House should think fit. It was, however, subsequent to the date of this rule, that the committee on printed papers had come to the resolution to which he had referred. With regard to cases which it was not material should be brought forward on any given day, and within any definite period, he could not see that any inconvenience could result from persevering in the practice which prevailed, of referring the petitions to a select committee; but there were instances of grievance which required the application of immediate redress, and in these cases the House should reserve to itself the right of printing petitions. He had done his duty in presenting these objections to the House; if they should be overruled, he would not further oppose the printing of the petition. In deciding upon the question, the House would virtually decide whether they would return to the old practice, a principle which he should most strenuously oppose.

Mr. Goulburn

took a different view of the subject. The only point the House were called upon to decide was whether they would print this particular petition, and he thought they ought to do so if it could be shown that the petition was of such a character as to call for the immediate interposition of the House to obtain an earlier investigation than could be obtained by waiting for a reference to the committee. What was the nature of this petition? An individual complained to the House that by the supposed mistake or misconduct of a public officer he had been debarred from procuring a register of county voters. There was no subject which the House was more bound to entertain than one which concerned the exercise of the elective franchise, and the statement, whether true or false, having been made to the House upon the authority of an hon. Member, who had given notice that he meant to make it the subject of discussion, he thought the House should consent to the printing of this petition for the use of Members only. He thought that there was a special ground for the printing of this petition which did not apply to petitions of less urgency.

Mr. Greene

differed very much from the opinion expressed by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Goulburn). The question merely was, whether this petition should be brought under the consideration of the House at an earlier period than it would have been had it been referred to the committee. To make this petition an exception to the rule would be casting a stigma upon those petitions which were referred to the committee, and would be declaring that those alone were worthy of the attention of the House which were printed with the votes. If it could be shown that this petition was of so much importance as to require that it should be brought forward on an early day, he would then concur in the necessity of printing it; but unless that were shown he thought the House should adhere to the rule laid down.

Sir E. Knatchbull

thought, that, as the hon. Member had given notice of his intention to bring the petition under the attention of the House, it was of the highest consequence that it should be placed in the hands of hon. Members before the discussion came on.

Mr. G. W. Wood

said, that the question was in truth whether the House had confidence in the judgment of the committee appointed to consider the subject of printing petitions. The course which the committee took was to print all petitions of this character, and he was of opinion, that if the petition had last night been referred to them, the hon. Member for Finsbury would have attained his object quite as early as he would now secure it.

Mr. T. B. Estcourt

could assure the hon. Member, that the House in nowise found fault with the manner in which the committee discharged their important duties. He took a different view of the case from that of the hon. Member, and he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of Cambridge, that a petition which contained allegations such as those which were here made, relating to the exercise of the elective franchise by the constituency of that House, was one of such primary importance, that it demanded to be at once printed, for the purpose of being taken into consideration.

Lord J. Russell

would not say whether a better rule than the present might not be established, or whether they should not place some further restrictions on the printing of petitions; but the question then was, the application of the existing rule. He found that the law of the case had been laid down by Lord Dumfermline as follows.— That all petitions which are presented relative to subjects which Members wished to bring under the consideration of the House are printed with the votes, the Member giving notice when he presented the petition of the day on which he will make his motion. When, therefore, they refused to print a petition, it should be on some ground of exception why the rule laid down should not be adhered to in a particular instance. There might be various grounds for such an exception. It might be said, for instance, that the matter was one so well known that it did not require any particular notice; or it might be found that the petition was libellous, or such as ought not to be printed unless for the use of Members only. The petition before the House did not, however, seem to him to offer any just ground why the House should refuse its being printed. It did not relate to a grievance which the petitioner alone had felt, but the subject was one of great importance, relating as it did to a refusal to present a copy of a registry, for which the party offered 15s., while the officer stated, that a far larger sum would he required. The case was one to which the House should look with great delicacy. The petition contained nothing affecting the character of the individual against whom the complaint was made. He might have acted with perfect propriety, and it might have been impossible for him to have presented a copy at a lower price than he named. Laying aside, therefore, every consideration as to the fitness of establishing a new rule with regard to petitions, he should certainly vote for the printing of the petition in question.

Motion agreed to.

Sir E. Knatchbull moved, that the petition of Mr. Henslow, presented by him on Wednesday, should be printed and circulated with the votes. The petition was that of a solicitor, who complained on behalf of his clients, of certain proceedings in the Legacy Duty Office in reference to the property of certain individuals deceased, for returns respecting which he meant according to his notice to submit a motion to the House.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

objected to the printing of the petition, which was that of an indifferent party complaining of no personal grievance, but of some acts alleged to be done towards his clients. He very much doubted whether it would be expedient to grant those returns which were to be moved for, but he should have no objection to them, if the right hon. Baronet could procure the consent of the parties who were concerned.

Sir Robert Peel

thought, that it was of very great importance that the rules of the House relating to the printing of petitions should be determined, and should be strictly attended to, as well as that every hon. Member should, in this respect, stand upon the same footing. The rule at present was, that any Member might move that a petition which he presented should be printed, upon his giving notice of his intention to found a motion upon it; and conceiving this to be the existing rule, he should have voted for the hon. Member for Finsbury if the House had divided. He apprehended that the result of the state of things which was contended for, that the propriety of printing petitions should be discussed when the petition was proposed to be printed, would be this—that every hon. Member would think his own the most important petition, that debates would arise, which would extend to the matter contained in the petitions, and all the existing rules upon discussing petitions would be set aside. He hoped, therefore, that the right hon. Baronet would withdraw his motion.

Viscount Howick

thought that the effect of adopting the course which an assent to this motion would establish, would be to induce many hon. Members to bring forward subjects of small importance. It was to be remembered, that hon. Members had a strong pressure from their constituents and from their private friends, and he contended, that if any impartial man looked back to the number of petitions presented since the late rule had been established, he would find that only one in ten was of such a nature as to be entitled to be printed. He cordially concurred with the right hon. Baronet as to the impropriety of debating petitions upon their being presented, but after the decision which had been arrived at in reference to the petition of the hon. Member for Finsbury, for the future he should always vote in favour of printing petitions, because he thought that greater difficulties would occur by reason of the petitions being discussed upon their being presented than from their being printed.

Sir R. Peel

saw no reason to alter his opinion upon the existing state of the practice of the House. What he thought was, that the rule should be altered, and that there should be a distinct definition of the circumstances under which a petition might be printed, for that the mere intention of an hon. Member to found a motion upon it was not, in his view, sufficient.

Mr. Hume

said, that his definition of the rule was entirely different from that which had been sought to be put upon it by the noble Lord, the Member for Northumberland. He contended that the rule had been adopted only with a view to get rid of the custom of discussing petitions when they were presented; but, according to the rule laid down, when any hon. Member expressed his intention to found a motion upon a petition which he had presented, it was his right that it should be printed.

Motion withdrawn.

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