HC Deb 14 March 1853 vol 125 cc157-64

said, that as the Consolidated Fund Bill would shortly come under the consideration of the House, and as that Bill had reference to the revenue, he would take the present opportunity of putting a question to the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer, which had also relation to the same subject. He wished to call the attention of that right hon. Gentleman to the unsatisfactory state in which the law now was with reference to the taxes that are imposed upon news and intelligence. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General of the late Government (Sir F. Thesiger) stated, on the 6th of December last, that immediate legislation on that subject was necessary; and upon the statement which that hon. and learned Gentleman then made, the House granted to him leave to bring in a Bill. Since that time no further proceedings had been taken in the matter. He trusted he might be permitted to say a few words, with the view of reminding the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer of what had occurred with reference to this subject. In November, 1851, a suit for penalties against the publishers of the Household Narrative, edited by Mr. C. Dickens, was brought in the Court of Exchequer. The Judges of that Court decided in favour of Messrs. Bradbury and Evans, and against the Board of Inland Revenue. The Board of Inland Revenue declined to acquiesce in that decision. The parties who had defended that action, at very considerable expense, were informed that further proceedings would be taken to set aside the decision of the Court of Exchequer, and were left in that state of suspense. The law officers were required to report upon the case, and they advised the Crown that the appeal should be proceeded with. Subsequently, there was a change of Government. The law officers of Lord Derby's Government considered the question, and they advised first of all, he believed, that the decision of the Court of Exchequer was contrary to law; but, in the next place, as they thought it would be a great grievance to Messrs. Bradbury and Evans to proceed against them a second time, they advised that future litigation should be set aside by the bringing in of a Bill on the subject. But that Bill was stopped by the fall of the Derby Administration. They were now arrived at the year 1853, and this simple matter, which he believed any gentleman could have settled in half an hour, was still hanging up in suspense. That delay was not only inconvenient but oppressive to Messrs. Bradbury and Evans. He was aware that the law officers of the Crown might have been prevented by pressure of business from reporting upon the matter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but he would ask that right hon. Gentleman whether he would promise that he would use all speed conveniently possible in order to bring this matter to a termination? They-had had first the Board of Inland Revenue, then they had had the Court of Exchequer, then they had had three Chancellors of the Exchequer, besides three different sets of law officers of the Crown, who had applied their minds to this question—whether a monthly publication containing news was liable to stamp duty or not. The time for decision had come. At that moment there were parties in the country who were deterred from issuing such publications, in consequence of the threat held out that an attempt would be made to obtain a reversal of the decision of the Court of Exchequer. Such a state of things was extremely oppressive to the parties concerned, and he, therefore, hoped that the Government would lose no time in bringing the matter to a conclusion.


said, that if any weight were due to the opinions of those legal parties with whom he-had the opportunity of conversing on this subject, he could inform the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the question was not at all so simple a one as he supposed; for there were other points involved of some importance. One was, the point as to the number of days which constituted the interval between each publication which brought it within the meaning of the Statute. He agreed in opinion with the right hon. Gentleman that the present state of the question was most unsatisfactory, and he promised that as far as he could urge on a settlement of it the suspense should not be permitted to continue for one day longer than was necessary. He had asked the opinion of the law officers on the subject. That opinion, he believed, would be soon in possession of the Government. He would give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance that when that opinion was received, no time would be lost in coming to a final decision upon the question at issue.


said, he would suggest a very simple process of dealing with this question, on which so many Chancellors of the Exchequer and law officers had been so long employed—let them at once repeal the tax. He made that suggestion in the firm belief that the revenue would suffer nothing by its adoption. At present there were sixty publications, such as the Household Narrative, thirty of which were charged with stamp, and thirty were allowed to escape from it. It appeared that neither the Board of Inland Revenue, nor the law officers of the Crown, nor the Chancellor of the Exchequer, could say which publication ought, and which ought not, to be liable to the stamp; and the simplest process would be to put an end to the stamp altogether. What the Chancellor of the Exchequer might lose in its abolition would be gained by the payment for the sending through the post of those publications which were now unstamped, and which, therefore, could not be sent post free. He would almost give a guarantee to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that he would within twelve months regain by postage all that the revenue might lose by the abolition of the stamp.


said, the House would probably allow him to make a few remarks on this question, which was not so entirely free from difficulty as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Manchester (Mr. Gibson) seemed to suppose. The House was already aware of the state of the question at the time that the late Government came into power. At that time there had been a decision by a majority of the Judges in the Court of Exchequer in favour of exempting the Household Narrative from duty; but Her Majesty's late Government found that the law officers of the Government of the noble Lord opposite (Lord John Russell) were of opinion that that decision was not quite satisfactory, and they were rather disposed to think that the opinion of Baron Parke, who differed from the majority of the Court, was the better opinion. But, at all events, they thought that it was essential that the opinion of a court of appeal should be taken before they agreed to be bound by the decision of the Court of Exchequer. Now, he must confess, that had the matter come before him originally, he should have entertained the same opinion as the law officers of the Government of the noble Lord on this subject. At all events, he felt himself bound by their opinion. It was consequently determined that the decision of the Court of Exchequer should be appealed against. There were, however, different opinions as to the mode in which the case should be presented to the Court for rehearing; and ultimately his right hon. Friend the late Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Disraeli) was of opinion that, without any detriment to the public interest, a Bill might be introduced, by which publications like the Household Narrative might be exempt from duty. But, at the same time, the great difficulty in framing a Bill of that kind was this, that unless you were extremely careful how you worded your Bill, you might exempt from taxation a number of publications which clearly, as the law existed, were liable to duty. With some difficulty a Bill was prepared, and that Bill, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Manchester had stated, he (Sir F. Thesiger) obtained leave to introduce. But it was the right hon. Gentleman himself, by starting a preliminary objection, who prevented that Bill from being brought in. [Mr. M. GIBSON: Oh! no.] The right hon. Gentleman took this objection: it was necessary in framing that Bill to take care that those publications which clearly were liable to duty under the existing law, but with respect to which some doubt might arise in consequence of the decision of the Court of Exchequer whether they were liable to duty or not—it was necessary to take care that a schedule should be framed which would embrace those publications which were clearly liable to duty. The right hon. Gentleman, however, objected that, inasmuch as the decision of the Court of Exchequer made it doubtful whether publications like the Household Narrative might not be exempted from duty, a Bill which would make it perfectly certain that they were liable to duty was one which could only be introduced in a Committee of the whole House. He (Sir F. Thesiger) felt the force of the objection, and he intended so to introduce the Bill. But in the meantime the resignation of the late Government prevented him from proceeding with the Bill. The more he looked at this subject, the more difficult he found it to be. Of course the easiest way of getting rid of the difficulty would he to adopt the suggestion of the hon. Member for Montrose. But that was a matter entirely for the consideration of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who he did not suppose was likely to accede to the proposition. He (Sir F. Thesiger) could well understand that the present law officers found this to be a matter of great difficulty.


said, he begged to second the suggestion of his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Montrose. It appeared to him that they were placed in a most humiliating position. The House and the country had to wait until the ingenuity of lawyers could frame a Bill to prevent the free diffusion of knowledge—for that was what the Government were aiming at. And under what circumstances were they doing so? All parties were agreed that the political franchise should be extended; the Government admitted that the rights of the people should be enlarged; and yet, at the very same time, they were exerting all the ingenuity in their power to prevent, as far as they could, the people from obtaining political knowledge. This was the great difficulty which the Government had to deal with in this matter—they could not define what news was. Nobody could define what news was. He had an opportunity of cross-examining the law adviser of the Crown, and the chairman and secretary of the Inland Revenue Board, on this subject. He endeavoured to learn from them what was their idea of news. He asked them if they considered the Queen's Speech to be news? They answered, "Yes; anybody publishing the Queen's Speech without a stamp would be liable to prosecution." Then they were asked, "Is the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on opening his Budget news?" "No; we think that might be published without a stamp." Now every one knew that far more importance was attached to a speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on opening his Budget, than a Queen's Speech. And therefore, to say that the one was news, and the other was not, showed how impossible it was to define what news was. The only plan was to abolish the law which required a stamp to be put upon publications containing news. In fact, that law was already completely evaded; for there were fifty or sixty publications in the metropolis, like the Athenœum and the Builder, which published news, and yet the owners considered it to be optional to them whether or not those publications should be stamped. Let every newspaper have the same privilege as the Athenœum and Builder, and the fifty or sixty similar publications. Let them be stamped or unstamped just as the proprietors pleased. Let Mr. Rowland Hill have absolute control over them as far as their transmission by post was concerned. Mr. Rowland Hill told the Committee that he could manage these publications; and if they were left to him, be (Mr. Cobden) had no doubt that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would lose nothing. Let the Chancellor of the Exchequer get rid of this newspaper stamp, which was a reproach to us. Let him signalise his rule by putting an end to this tax on knowledge.


said, he wished to ask a question in connexion with this matter, namely, whether it was the intention of the Treasury to reimburse Messrs. Bradbury and Evans the costs in which the prosecu- tion to which they had been subjected had involved them, and in which the Government had been defeated? There did not appear to be an intention to attempt to enforce the law against them by any further appeal, and it was only right that private individuals who had suffered from an unsuccessful prosecution on the part of the Government should be reimbursed.


said, the hon. Member had opened a subject entirely new to him, and he must, therefore, decline to give any pledge. Any application of the nature indicated by the hon. Member would be considered on its merits.


said, he understood that the late hon. and learned Attorney General had stated in his place that when the Government was unfortunate in its appeals to the law, the expenses to the parties would be returned; and if that were to be the rule in future, it surely ought also to be applicable in the case of Messrs. Bradbury and Evans.


with regard to the general subject, wished to say that it was under consideration.


said, that as Attorney General in the late Government, he had given no pledge on the subject, except that he would bring in a Bill which would place the Crown, when defeated in such prosecutions, in the same position as any other prosecutor in respect to costs.


said, he believed that the hon. and learned Gentleman had intimated that the late Government had under consideration the general question, and not the particular case now referred to. He now desired to inform the House, that the law officers of three successive Administrations having failed in solving the difficulties connected with the question, and having failed also in obtaining a judgment of a Court of Law in their favour, it was now proposed to obtain the judgment of a police magistrate upon the subject. One of his constituents had published a paper called the Potteries Free Press, and the Government, overlooking Punch and other publications, had determined to pick out this unfortunate man and to summon him before a police magistrate for the payment of a penalty of 20l. On Thursday next the magistrate at Bow Street police-office was to decide a point of law which had puzzled the law officers of three suc- cessive Administrations. He asked whether such a proceeding was carried on with the knowledge and concurrence of the present law officers of the Crown? and whether this anticipated decision of the magistrate was to be taken as a solution of the difficulty?


said, the hon. Gentleman was totally mistaken in supposing the two cases to be similar. The difficulty in the case of Messrs. Bradbury and Evans arose from the circumstance of their paper being published at an interval of not less than twenty-six days, whereas the Potteries Free Press was published every week, contained a regular statement of public news, and therefore fell not within the decision in the case of the publication by Messrs. Bradbury and Evans. It was a clear open infraction of the law; and without entering into the question whether or not it would be politic to repeal the stamp laws, it was the bounden duty of the law officers to enforce the law as it existed. Therefore it was with the sanction of the Government that the case alluded to was proceeded with.


said, he trusted the consideration of the Government would be given to the expediency of establishing a postage duty instead of the stamp duty on publications.

Subject dropped.