HC Deb 14 December 1854 vol 136 cc301-3

I have given notice of putting a question to the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I will now do so. I wish to make inquiry from the right hon. Gentleman as to what course it is his intention to take with reference to the public press and the newspaper stamp. I may be putting this question at what some may think an inopportune moment; but, in fact, the war has rendered it an urgent question that cannot be delayed, and my object is to ask information from the Government, and to convey my desire, at the same time, that if the Government have a measure prepared they will proceed with it without delay. The extraordinary anxiety of persons amongst the humbler classes of society to obtain intelligence from the seat of war, of relatives, sons, and brothers, has caused to spring up in this country a considerable number of war journals, which are published without a stamp. Those war journals have obtained an extensive circulation, and the proprietors of stamped papers complain, as well they may, of an unfair competition —that they, paying stamp duty, are required to compete with others who do not pay the stamp duty, and who are conveying intelligence of universal interest throughout the country. That is the position in which we now are. The Government, unfortunately, have laid down a rule, through the Board of Inland Revenue, that papers which are confined to one subject, and only deal with one subject, are not liable to the stamp. The consequence is, that numerous papers relating to a particular subject—such as police and sporting matters—are published without stamps; and those persons assert, as they confine themselves to the one subject of war, they also are entitled to publish without stamps. There is extreme difficulty in dealing with this question, for those persons demand that they should have a fair trial in the Court of Exchequer, in order that their legal rights should be ascertained, as to whether they should be entitled to publish without a stamp or not. Therefore, I beg to be excused for intruding at the present moment, but I feel that the war itself has made this a peculiarly urgent question. The Government have threatened the par- ties with summary proceedings, and have endeavoured to protect the stamped press as best they can against this competition; but I fear that any hope of that kind to give official protection is quite vain, and that those papers, from the enormous interest that is felt in the news from the seat of war, will spring up from day to day. As the Government have go a measure prepared, as I am informed—for I was told a long time ago it was in a state of preparation—I call most emphatically upon the right hon. Gentleman to bring in the Bill, and relieve the press of the country from the competition to which they are subject from the unsatisfactory state of the law. I must remind the right hon. Gentleman that the House of Commons, last Session, by a unanimous Resolution, declared that the law was ill-defined and unequally enforced, and demanded the consideration of Parliament. If it demanded the attention of Parliament, then, in the opinion of the House, it now demands it more; and I ask respectfully the Government to lose no time in settling this important question.


What I have to say in answer to the question of the right hon. Gentleman shall be said in a very few words. The Government feel as strongly as the right hon. Gentleman can urge the obligation incumbent upon them in consequence of a Resolution which, without a division, was adopted by the House during the summer. A pledge was given by the Government, before the close of the Session, that the subject, which is one of considerable difficulty in detail, should have their best consideration. They have done their best to redeem that pledge, and have likewise thought it to be their duty to avail themselves of the powers conferred on them by the present law for the purpose of preventing infractions and violations of that law, which were likely to interfere with the collection of the revenue. I do not understand the right hon. Gentleman to object to the steps that have been taken, but that he morely refers to them as illustrative of the disadvantages and inconveniences attending the present state of things. There is no dispute between us regarding those disadvantages and inconveniences, and we are endeavouring to frame a measure to meet them in the best way we can. The right hon. Gentleman thinks that measure should be introduced at the present moment; but in that view of the right hon. Gentleman we are not prepared to concur. It is very true that Parliament has met for the performance of certain business, but it is not the intention of the Government to press upon the consideration of the House any measure of importance, with the exception of two measures, to which my noble Friend (Lord John Russell) has referred. It is obvious, with regard to a question of this kind, that we should not lay a Bill upon the table of the House until we have the prospect of being able to pass that Bill through its stages, and take the definite judgment of the House upon it. Our opinion is, that we could not do justice to any such Bill at this moment. The time the House is likely to sit will not enable us to pass the Bill under any circumstances we can contemplate as probable; and it would be inconvenient to introduce the Bill and leave it for consideration until after the recess, when Parliament shall meet after Christmas. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, so far as the Government is concerned, they will expect even from him an admission that they have done their best to redeem the pledge they have given.