HC Deb 02 February 1844 vol 72 cc147-55
Mr. Wallace

said, that before bringing forward the motion of which he had given notice (for rescinding the Standing Order which prevented any discussion on the Presentation of Petitions), he wished to have that Standing Order read. [The Standing Order of 1840 was then read. It enacted, that no Member on presenting a petition should do more than state its general substance—that no discussion should be al- lowed on such presentation; but that if the petition related to a matter on which a Member intended to found a motion, he might move to have it printed with the votes, he giving at the time notice of such motion. From this rule were excepted, petitions complaining of a grievance, any delay in the notice of which might be injurious to the public or to individuals. There were also excepted from the rule, petitions against measures imposing direct taxation.] The hon. Member went on to say, that the motion with which he should conclude, would be, that the Standing Order just read, should be rescinded. As the question had occupied the attention of the House on two former occasions, it was not his intention to enter at any length into it, for the importance of having the petitions of the people received and discussed in that House was so obvious, that he could not see on what reasonable ground the practice could be set aside. During the period he had served in Parliament—since the year 1833—for two years of that period—1833 and 1834—the petitions of the people were discussed at the time of their presentation, and that diffused great satisfaction generally throughout the country. The discontinuance of the practice had produced the reverse result, having led to general disappointment among the people. Petitions were now laid upon the Table, and afterwards jammed into bags and sacks, as if they were of no importance whatsoever. Those who knew the consideration which the people attached to getting up their petitions, the respectful and careful manner in which they were worded, and the great interest which they took in them, should take counsel themselves before they gave a vote for the continuance of this obnoxious practice. He had no hesitation in admitting that a considerable degree of inconvenience was felt by the House at the time he alluded to, when discussions upon petitions were general on all questions; at the same time he was prepared to say, that there ought to be, and might be, a distinction, which could be easily laid down, in order to do away with the present system. He found, that in the year 1839, a division took place on this subject, when the numbers were 105 against the renewal of the practice, and 50 for it. In the year 1842, this question was again brought before the House twice, on one occasion by himself, and then the division was 43 for the motion and 183 against it. A similar motion was also made by the hon. Member for Finsbury. He was then, as now, of opinion, that the people had an inherent right to have their petitions discussed on presentation, and it was an invidious proceeding of that House for hon. Members, by a majority, to wrest this right from the people. The opinion of the House had been given against him before, but the hon. Member for Finsbury brought the question before the House, whether in the case of taxation, when the people came there to complain of any new tax, about to be levied upon them, their petitions according to the old and healthy fashion, should be discussed at the time of presentation, by the Members who might present them, and those who chose to express their opinions upon the subject of the petition. The division on his hon. Friend's motion was 136 in favour of it, and 167 against it, showing that in this Parliament, composed, as it was, of a majority of Conservative Members, only a majority of 31 could be found to resist the motion of his hon. Friend. The people out of doors had no opportunity of seeing their petitions after they were laid before that House. The House had a system of sending them to a private committee, which dealt with them as it thought fit. Sometimes they were printed at length, sometimes in extracts, and often not printed at all, so that if the Members representing those who sent their petitions to that House, desired to let them see how they fulfilled their duty, so far as the presentation of their petitions went, they had not the means except by sending a note, to say that on such a day such a petition was presented. Out of doors, the people could not understand that, and he could assure the House that a vast number of the people generally, who entertained opinions still somewhat more favourable to the character of that House than others, found great fault with this system. The rule that individual petitions might be printed with the votes, was overborne by other rules. On two occasions, in the last Parliament, and on one in the preceding Parliament, he had been forced to leave petitions undiscussed altogether, because he could not find a day on which to bring them forward; notwithstanding he was in the House from the time it met, until it broke up at night, he never could find an opportunity to discuss these petitions, which were of an individual character; and he would not have them printed because he saw that they could not be discussed, and he would not be guilty of the injustice of printing that which involved a charge which the party accused had no opportunity of defending himself against. It was, therefore, the duty of the House to adopt some stringent rule by which the petitions of the people should be better treated. They did not know whether their petitions had been attended to or not, and by an economical rule of an hon. Friend who sat near him, the lists of those petitions and other Parliamentary papers could not now be sent to them. He considered the present practice injurious to the best interests of the country, and obnoxious to the feelings of the people; and he believed the rescinding of the rule, as it now stood, would be an exceedingly gratifying thing to the people. Having stated the nature of the case which he had to bring before the House, and which had been twice before fully discussed in the present Parliament, he would merely observe, that if an unqualified veto were put on his proposal, the people would have a right to accuse the majority of that House of having done what in them lay to prevent their constituents from knowing what took place within its walls. The hon. Gentleman concluded by saying, that he should certainly divide the House upon his motion.

Dr. Bowring

fully agreed with the observations made by his hon. Friend, and he should, therefore, feel great pleasure in seconding the motion. That House had not a more important function to exercise than to open its doors wide to the petitions of the people, which he thought should be treated with greater respect than they were. There was out of doors a growing indisposition to petition that House, and he believed it might be traced greatly to that inattention to the representations which from time to time were addressed to the Representatives of the country. With reference to the sale of Parliamentary papers, he thought it was attended with public benefit, and added greatly to their circulation; it was not only eminently useful, but highly economical. He would cheerfully co-operate with his hon. Friend in expressing a hope that the rule which existed, and which created a great deal of dissatisfaction out of doors, would be rescinded.

Sir R. Peel

was a little surprised at the observation of the hon. Gentleman who had last addressed the House, that there was an increasing disposition amongst the people of this country to withhold pe- titions from that House. He rather thought, though he was speaking from memory, that the number of petitions presented last year amounted to about 25,000, and if the hon. Gentleman would compare the number presented last year with those of previous years, he did not think he would find a confirmation of his statement, that there was any disposition to withhold petitions from the House of Commons. But if the hon. Gentleman recollected the petitions that were presented on the subject of Education, when the Education Bill was under consideration last year, he thought he would find conclusive proof that there was no disposition on the part of those who had objections to a public measure, or felt themselves aggrieved by it, to present their petitions to the House of Commons; and he (Sir R. Peel) thought he had heard from the hon. Gentleman, or those sitting near him, that the result of those petitions proved the efficacy of the right to petition. The question was not the convenience of Members, but what practice would most conduce to the satisfactory conduct of Parliamentary business. Some years since it was the habit to enter into debates on the presentation of petitions, and then it was held to be useful that there should be such an opportunity, because many Members of Parliament distrusted their own powers, and were unwilling to enter into a general discussion; but he thought the confidence of the House, and of the Members in general had much increased, and there was no such diffidence on the part of individual Members in addressing the House. In point of fact, the practice had grown up of having debates on subjects of great public importance, which lasted six or seven nights, and thus the opportunity of addressing the House was afforded to every Member; and he thought a speech made a much greater impression when delivered in the course of a consecutive discussion, when the subject was fairly under review, than at an unexpected time on the occasion of presenting a petion. This subject had been brought under the consideration of the House so lately as 1842; and he begged to call the attention of the House to what had been the practice when the late Government was in power, when Lord Dunfermline, then Mr. Abercrombie filled the chair now so worthily occupied by the present Speaker. The House was then so sensible of the inconvenience of occupying so much of the day upon petitions, when an important discussion was about to take place, that the practice was altered. Of course, it was perfectly competent for any Member, at any time within the limits fixed by the House for presenting petitions, to state the place from whence it came, its object, and the number of signatures, and if he pleased, have it read in full by the clerk at the Table. If he intended to found a motion on the subject, he might have it printed with the votes, and fix a day for the discussion of the matter to which it referred; but if the grievance complained of was urgent and could not be delayed without injustice then he apprehended it was competent to the hon. Member presenting it to bring it on for discussion at once. Looking at these regulations, he thought it much better that they should be preserved, as he considered that it would be better to adhere to the rule and have a subject fully discussed at once, than that it should be brought forward at uncertain intervals on the presentation of petitions. He had himself a strong opinion that it would be for the public advantage to adhere to the Standing Orders which were confirmed by a large majority, with the concurrence of men of all sides of the House, who had most experience in public business—and he hoped the House would not depart from the rules, which had been affirmed in 1842, after very mature consideration.

Mr. Brotherton

had often had conversations with his constituents respecting the present mode of presenting petitions, and he never found a man yet whom he did not convince of the impracticability of raising a discussion on the presentation of each petition. The present mode of presenting petitions, so far from being objectionable, he did not hesitate to say was the best he had ever seen. He could recollect the time when there were discussions on the presentation of petitions, and they could never get through with more than three or four in one day; all the rest were thrown on the Table, and it was impossible to present them in an orderly manner. He hoped his hon. Friends would not divide the House on this subject, after he had given them a statement of facts. It appeared from the reports made to that House, that in the five years ending 1789, the number of petitions presented had been 880; in the five years ending 1805, it had been 1,026; in the five years ending 1815, it had been 4,498. In the five years ending 1831, it had been 24,492; and in the five years ending 1843, the number of petitions presented had been 94,292. Now, if a discussion were allowed on all petitions, the number so presented would be small, and confined to a few Members. He had seen one hundred Members with petitions in their hands waiting whilst Members made long speeches, and he had brought petitions down to that House eight or nine days consecutively, before he had been able to present them. He felt persuaded that the people would not be dissatisfied with the present mode if there had not been misrepresentations made to them on the subject; therefore, although he was generally on the popular side, and was not insensible of the good opinion of his constituents, yet from a sense of duty—being convinced that it would be impracticable to present petitions in any other way than that which was now pursued—he should feel bound to vote against the motion, if his hon. Friends persisted in it.

Mr. Ward

having once brought forward a similar motion, could not help stating that he agreed with the view now taken by the hon. Member for Salford, and much as he might regret voting against a motion which he had originally made himself, he felt that the adjourned debates to which allusion had been made by the right hon. Baronet afforded, on all great questions, the Members representing large constituencies a better and more convenient opportunity of placing on record their sentiments than they could have in an incidental discussion on the presentation of a petition. But at the same time he must be allowed to remind the right hon. Baronet, that this consideration had been frequently overlooked by hon. Gentlemen who did not wish to take part in a debate themselves, and became very impatient to bring those debates to a close. If the right of debating on the presentation of petitions were given up on some of those questions affecting large commercial communities of this country, they must expect every Member representing a great town to speak. It was not above once or twice in a Session that those questions occurred; but when they did occur, he called upon the right hon. Baronet to consider that subject, upon which the House had made so great a change. The attempt to apply the old rule of debating on the presentation of petitions would be utterly impracticable. They would come down to the House without knowing any hour when the public business was about to begin, and there would exist nothing but tedium and disgust from the multifarious subjects which would be introduced to the House. He, therefore, should vote against the motion of his hon. Friend, but with great regret; and although he had on a former occasion brought forward a similar motion himself, which he then thought it was wrong of the noble Lord to reject; but his opinion had changed, and be now believed the noble Lord was right, and himself wrong.

Mr. Fielden

hoped the hon. Gentleman would not withdraw the motion, but press it to a division. The people would be obliged to him for bringing it under discussion, and would be gratified to see a division, if ever so few Members voted for it. They never had an opportunity of knowing what many of the petitions which were presented contained, and he should like to know if it was not part of the business of that House to hear what petitioners had to say. With respect to the committee up stairs, though they had all the petitions handed over to them, they did not know what they contained. He could not see why a portion of the day, say from twelve to three, should not be devoted for the purpose of debates on the presentation of petitions. The people complained of their burthens, and the House told them they would not listen to their petitions; the right of petition was, then, quite a farce; the people were told to petition, and in the same breath it was said that their petitions would not be attended to. If they meant to govern the people by proper means, they must tell them to complain of their grievances and they would endeavour to redress them.

Mr. Wallace

in reply, observed, that all that he had heard from both sides of the House did not convince him that he was not right. He was quite satisfied that the people out of doors would be exceedingly glad to see the rule of the House upon which his motion was founded rescinded. The hon. Member for Salford was one of the committee which did as it pleased with the petitions of the people, and he had never seen any one yet in power who liked to relinquish it; but as he had no power to induce the House to go beyond what they were determined to do, and as he never had a desire to waste the time of the House, he was quite wil- ling to withdraw his motion. He was moreover, reminded by the First Lord of the Treasury, that if the rule were done away with, it would interfere with another regulation which he thought was essentially good. He, however, believed his proposition was perfectly practicable, which he might endeavour to show at some future time.

Motion withdrawn.