HC Deb 07 December 1852 vol 123 cc1065-71

said, he rose to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the expediency of distributing a selection from the Reports and Returns printed by order of the House of Commons, amongst the Literary and Scientific Institutions of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman said, that his proposition was confined to a selection of the Parliamentary Reports and Papers—for to send down all those documents to any institution would be to overwhelm it—as the Members of the House were—with a mass of papers a considerable portion of which would he utterly useless. Indeed, he should be very glad to have the principle of selection extended to the documents printed for the use of Parliament itself; for, though nothing could exceed the value and interest of much that was printed in the "blue books" and papers, there could be no doubt that a great deal was printed needlessly. From 1731 to 1800 there were printed 110 volumes, and from 1801 down to the present time there were printed 1,794 volumes, not a few of which might have been very well dispensed with. In 1800 the annual number of volumes printed by the House was 20, now it was 60. He proposed that the Committee should lay down some rule as to what institutions should be entitled to these papers. An institution, for instance, ought to have a certain number of members to entitle them to the privilege. The mechanics' institutes had taken deep root in the country; they formed the great means by which the middle classes of society were enabled to obtain intellectual improvement; they were therefore deserving of peculiar favour, and many of the highest persons in the land, and some of the greatest statesmen of the age, did not disdain to lecture at some of them. To a conference held last year by the Society of Arts, the various mechanics' institutes sent delegates. The object of the conference was that such of those institutions as wished to affiliate themselves should enjoy the advantages which such affiliation would confer. He understood that since that time 230 institutions, numbering between 60,000 and 70,000 members, had so affiliated themselves. The next thing which the Committee should consider was, whether postage should be paid upon such papers as were sent to them. He thought that they should exact some trifling postage. The Committee might be made permanent, and should from time to time select the papers that should be distributed in the manner he proposed. He also thought, that, upon the dissolution of a society these books should be distributed to other institutions, or disposed of as the House might think proper. He was desirous that full information should be given to the people upon the subject of finance, and colonisation. A selection of Parliamentary Reports and Papers such as he proposed, would, he was satisfied, be hailed as of the highest value and interest by the institutions in whoso behalf he spoke, and would tend in a marked manner to diffuse among the people sound political information upon all the great subjects of national concern. They would show, too, that the representatives of the people, besides their attendance and debates in that House, were arduously engaged throughout the Session in the development of information essential for the public service. As he understood that the Government did not intend to oppose the appointment of a Committee, he would not detain the House further, but trusted that means would be devised for carrying out a measure which he was convinced would tend to rivet more firmly the links that connected that House with the most intelligent classes of the community.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the expediency of distributing, gratis, under certain regulations, a selection from the Reports and Returns printed by order of the House of Commons, amongst the Literary and Scientific Institutions, and Mechanics' Institutes, throughout the United Kingdom.


concurred most cordially in the object of the Motion, but would make one suggestion which he thought might add to its utility. At the present moment there was not only a difficulty in obtaining the Parliamentary papers on the part of those who could not afford to pay for them, but those who were able and willing to pay for them, and did not know exactly how to proceed, and the places where they were sold, frequently could not obtain them, because the booksellers, getting no profit on them, would not have anything to do with them. The public were not generally aware of the low price at which the documents in question could he had; and if they were— those in the country especially—unless they had some friend in London who would take the trouble to procure and forward them, they could not get them. What he would suggest, then, was, that the terms of the Motion should be so altered as that the inquiry should embrace the question, whether by any alteration in the mode of selling Parliamentary papers they might not be circulated with greater facility than at present.

Amendment proposed— At the end of the Question, to add the words 'and to inquire whether any alterations should be made in the mode in which such documents are sold to make them more accessible to the community.'


said, the question involved had been decided two or three times already; and he must remind the House of the boon which had been already conferred on the public by the adoption of the recommendation of the Committee of which he had been a Member—to reduce the price of Parliamentary papers to the mere cost of the paper and the printing. The price fixed by the Committee was 1d. per sheet, because they supposed that no one desirous of obtaining the information therein contained would object to so small an expenditure. The Committee found that the House had two millions and a half of valuable papers locked up, which were of no use to them, and were only costing the country a great expense for warehouse room; and therefore it was the House had adopted the recommendation of the Committee to sell them at the mere price of paper and print. He fully agreed in the desirableness of giving every publicity to all the information that came before the House, and which could not be collected by any other means; and it was upon that principle that he had always been favourable to removal of the tax on newspapers. He was pleased that his right hon. Friend had brought the subject forward; and he could not help pressing on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that if he was sincere in the speech he had made last night, there was a tax which he might take off, and which would have the effect of adding greatly to the knowledge of the people. Let the local newspapers, so long as they were confined to their own locality, be free from stamps, and only let them be stamped when they were sent through the post. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not only support this Motion, but take into his consideration such a means of spreading knowledge as would be the result of such a plan, with regard to local newspapers, as he suggested.


said, he rose to confirm the observation of the hon. Member for Newcastle (Mr. Headlam), for it was the fact, that it was not generally known that Parliamentary papers were to be bought freely, and at a very low price —indeed, it was generally supposed that they could not be obtained at all without the intervention of a Member of that House. He had himself had many applications to him by persons to assist them in procuring them, who were unaware that they could get them so easily. He wished to take this opportunity of expressing his dislike to the change which had been made in the form of the reports of the House. The good old large orthodox folio had been abolished, and a little, thick, dumpy volume substituted, which was far less convenient, for by turning over a folio page you could see at a glance whether there was anything in it which you wanted to read, while in a small volume you took twice the time in finding it out. He quite agreed in the proposal of his right hon. Friend, and he only hoped that if the papers of the House were to be more largely circulated, that Committees would be more careful as to the extent of questions that were put, so as to avoid collecting together, as was now the case, a quantity of unreadable stuff.


as one who took a strong interest in mechanics' institutes, begged to thank his right hon. Friend for this attempt to extend a new class of reading to them. It was said, that judging from the decline in the circulation of Chambers's Journal, the Penny Magazine, and similar publications, the principal reading the working classes now cared for was political; and if that were so, care should be taken that that kind of reading should be of the best quality. He cordially approved of the Motion, as he thought the perusal of these papers would show the working classes that more was done in the House than mere talking and debating, and the information contained in them would tend to correct many crude and mischievous ideas.


said, there could be no doubt that the Parliamentary literature of this country was one of the most remarkable features of the intellectual development of the age in which we lived. He believed we could not more perfectly ascertain its value than by comparing the sources accessible to an historian in this country some time back with the resources at the command of any one now who undertook to write the history of the country in which we lived. If we only looked at the means which even so great an historian as Mr. Hume had at his command, we should find him often searching through several ancient Acts of Parliament to discover the price of a single article, whereas the statistical details which were now at the command of the historian of the day, threw a complete light upon every question connected with the food and the means of subsistence of the people. If we looked to manners, if we looked to the means of Government not only in this country but its dependencies, and indeed, to all those subjects which ought to afford the materials whence the true history of a country was drawn, we should find that in the Parliamentary literature, which had grown into importance within the last half-century, resources were placed in the hands of public writers, such as never had been before possessed in any time or country. Neither could he altogether agree with the criticism of the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. M. Milnes), on the unimportance of any portion of these documents. It would be extremely undesirable that any restrictions should be laid upon the investigations of our statesmen; and he would say himself that he did not find that there was that wearisome or worthless result of the labours of Committees to which the hon. Member had referred; on the contrary, he did not think it possible to over-estimate the importance and value of the labours of Parliamentary Committees. He agreed with the right hon. Gentleman who had introduced the Motion that there were few institutions in this country which ought to be more encouraged, and which tended more to the public welfare, than mechanics' institutions. Therefore, so far as the Motion before the House was concerned, he should offer no opposition whatever to it, and he should be very glad if the Committee should arrive at a practical conclusion, which could be recommended to and adopted by the House. This was all he could say at present, because he felt that the recommendations of the Committee, if adopted, must depend very much upon the manner in which they arranged the details of the question. He did not think that the conditions on which these institutions were to obtain the publications of the House should be of too easy a character, but that they should be sensible of the privileges they enjoyed. Among themselves, he conceived that the privilege of receiving all these publications as a matter of course rendered many of them insensible to the value of the documents, and perhaps many volumes were never opened at all which would be studied minutely if there were more difficulty and some cost in obtaining them. This would be one of the principal objects to which the Committee must give their attention. He did not pretend to lay down any rules in any way to guide the Committee; he only said that the House would expect them to show that practical good would be obtained by the dissemination, at some cost and trouble, of these papers, and that they would give their particular attention to these points of detail. They were all agreed on the principal points: they agreed on a due appreciation of the publication of the labours of the two Houses of Parliament; they agreed that it was very important that the great body of the people should become acquainted with the most valuable and recent information which these publications contained; but how that information could be most satisfactorily disseminated throughout the country was a question to which the Committee must give their most earnest attention; for he was sure that the House would not sanction any proposition of this kind unless it conceived that great practical good would result. He himself had expressed his belief that it would. It would be for the Committee to overcome those difficulties which had been suggested, which would be obvious to all, and he should be exceedingly glad if by assenting to the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman consequences should follow which should by one other means—by conveying to them this valuable species of information—elevate the character of the people of this country.


said, that by sending the volumes of Parliamentary reports to mechanics' institutes the public would have greater access to them, and he was convinced that the people of this country were fully able to appreciate the information conveyed in them. If the people were seeking political power it was important that they should have the best political education; and as this country was now governed by public opinion, it was most important that public opinion should be: elevated. He had had opportunities of seeing in the public libraries and institutions of Manchester and Sal-ford how those publications were appreciated, and he had received many communications pressing on him the advantage of having those books circulated, and he believed that their circulation would be productive of great public good.


said, that in the town he represented there was difficulty in raising the funds necessary for keeping up mechanics' institutions, and he believed it was so elsewhere; and as the best mode of securing such funds was by increasing the honorary members, he begged to suggest that in the selection of Parliamentary papers which were sent to mechanics' institutions, regard should be had not merely to such as would be interesting to mechanics alone, but to the class above them; and when it was known that mechanics' institutions were the depositories of Parliamentary papers, the number of honorary members would be increased.

Question, "That those words he there added," put, and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Select Committee appointedTo inquire into the expediency of distributing, gratis, tinder certain regulations, a selection from the Reports and Returns printed by order of the House of Commons, amongst the Literary and Scientific Institutions, and Mechanics' Institutes, throughout the United Kingdom; and to inquire whether any alteration should be made in the mode in which such documents are sold to make them more accessible to the community.