HC Deb 28 February 1854 vol 131 cc133-41

said, he would now move for a Return of the number of Newspaper Stamps at 1d. issued to Newspapers in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, for the years 1851, 1852, and 1853; specifying each Newspaper by name, and the number of Stamps issued in each of the above years to each Newspaper (in continuation of Parliamentary Paper No. 42 of Session 1852).


said, he had explained to the hon. Member, and the House was perfectly well aware of the reasons why this return ought not to be granted. It was one which for many years past had been invariably refused. The House would observe that it was not only a return calling for the number of newspaper stamps, but for a specification of the number of stamps used by each newspaper. Now, the principle adopted of late years in granting returns of this nature was this—that whenever one was asked for which merely involved the aggregate amount of stamps supplied, the House acceded to that request; but when a return was moved for which involved the disclosure of private circumstances, it had been an invariable rule since the year 1839 to refuse it. Hon. Members would see that it would be just as reasonable to ask for a schedule of the amounts paid by individuals for income tax, as it would be to ask for the number of stamps used by each individual newspaper. It was quite true that a return was presented to this House in 1852 having these particulars specified; but that return was simply a reprint of a document which had been laid before the Parliamentary Committee on Newspaper Stamps, and which was granted to that Committee as an exception, on the ground that it was necessary for the objects of their inquiry. A similar proposal to this was refused last year, and had been refused in every year since 1839, and he hoped the House would now support the Government in refusing to break through a rule which was based upon the observance of good faith in not disclosing the private affairs of individuals.


said, he did not consider the reasons given by the hon. Member sufficient for the refusal of this return. The return on the table of the House was a tabular form for fourteen years, and therefore, if such a return could be injurious to private interests, that return was more likely to be so than the return he now moved for, which would only go back three years. It had been formerly the custom to grant these returns, not only for the whole year, but also for each particular month in the year. He moved for the return because it would afford the information necessary to ascertain the mode in which the stamp laws were administered in this country, and there was no doubt that they were administered in a way most injurious to newspaper proprietors. The law required the whole edition to be stamped; and yet there were numerous exceptions. Some newspapers were allowed to stamp part of their edition, and tradesmen's catalogues of prices were stamped. Such publications as the Builder and Athenœum had only a portion of their edition stamped, while a similar privilege had been refused to new publications. It was this extraordinary state of the law which called for further inquiry and rendered these returns necessary. He would be the last person to bring forward a Motion injurious to private interests, especially as he was in some respects concerned in publications of the nature he had referred to; but still he thought that the public good should be considered before private interest.


said, he thought that such a discussion as the present should not proceed at so late an hour (half-past twelve o' clock); he should therefore move the adjournment of the House.

Motion made and Question put—"That this House do now adjourn."

The House divided:—Ayes 35; Noes 66; Majority 31.


Sir, it seems to me very unwise to oppose this Motion. I cannot really understand on what principle it is opposed. In the first place newspapers are organs of public opinion, and I think the country has a right to know, by ascertaining their circulation, how far they influence public opinion. Their circulation is a test by which the public can ascertain what is the best medium at their command for advertising such information as they may think it expedient to announce to the world. Nor can I admit for a moment that there is any—I will not say analogy—but any complete analogy between newspaper property in respect to its relation with the stamp duties and other property subject to taxation. Newspapers constitute a peculiar kind of property, the essence of which is publicity, and I think we have a right to know all respecting the newspapers that the Government can communicate to us, so far as that communication can be made by making an avowal of what knowledge comes to the Government through the influence of the law. As a general rule, we have a right to know upon that ground as much as we can of the peculiar character of newspaper property. But there are special reasons why I think the House ought to support the Motion. Information of this kind does exist to a certain extent and in a certain degree. We know, for instance, the circulation of the newspapers in 1850; and what is the consequence of that accurate and authentic information being before the House with regard to the circulation of the newspapers? Why, you have the comparative circulation of all the public journals advertised, the test of which is the return of 1850. Therefore you have some information given you; but it is imperfect information, and I cannot admit the validity of the argument of the hon. Secretary of the Treasury that we have no right to appeal to the return of 1850, now on our table, although it is accurate and authentic, be- cause it was first given to a Committee of this House. The House of Commons, by an order that that return should be laid upon its table for the use of all its Members, took the question entirely out of the sphere of the Select Committee. By that order it announced that it thought it expedient and advisable that that information should be given, and I entirely disapprove of the Resolution which the House came to last year, that these returns should not be continued. In my opinion there is no sound argument against this proposition. There are many arguments that I think quite sound which may be urged in its favour. The essence of a newspaper is publicity, and by knowing its circulation we can know its means of influencing opinion, and the more we know of how it exercises that influence the better it is for society. I shall, therefore, Sir, support this Motion.


I have not much, Sir, to complain of in the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has just made; but as he says that he does not see any reason why the Government should object to the production of this return, it is right that I should state a reason and that is, the principle of justice, and of its interference with private interests. I do not at all deny that it would be a matter of some interest as information to know what is the exact circulation as far as the returns of stamps go, although that is not a very exact test, because a particular newspaper that wishes at any time to appear to have a large circulation might lay in a large supply of stamps. Yet certainly as far as the returns of stamps go, it would no doubt be a matter of interest to know what is the return of each particular newspaper. And it would be a matter of considerable interest, and would excite one's curiosity in a particular manner, supposing the information collected by the Special Commissioners of Income Tax were laid before the House. ["Oh, oh!"] Some hon. Gentlemen may think it would not be a matter of interest, but I maintain that it would be a matter of peculiar interest, to know what are the private affairs of individuals, and those who do not think so are of course at liberty to profess a different opinion. But the House had had this question recently under its consideration, and it then determined that it would not call for this information, The House is, however, now invited to reverse that determination. The question, in fact, is one between the greater and the smaller traders. On the great trader it would confer nothing but advantage that there should be exhibited to the world, on a supposed Parliamentary authority, evidence of his success, and evidence of the inferiority of his competitors. On the other hand, to the small trader, no doubt, it would be a matter of considerable inconvenience, and would tend greatly to his being further distanced in the race in which he is already behind, if this return were made. Now, that is pretty nearly the whole case, and I think there is not much reason to doubt that this is the whole question—that the publication of this information would have an influence on the course of trade, and that its influence would be favourable to those who are already successful, and unfavourable to those who are somewhat in the rear. Last year it was the fashion to find fault with the Government because a measure which they adopted was supposed to be favourable to the greater newspapers—I mean the measure with reference to the diminution of the stamp duty on supplements to newspapers. The Government adopted that proposal solely because they thought it was just, and not because it was favourable to a great newspaper; but they believed it would be of public advantage, whilst it was founded on justice, although it might have an incidental effect of the character stated. On the present occasion, I confess that I think, without pretending at all to go the length of saying that the House has no right to ask for this information—for such a doctrine I do not at all maintain—yet I think this is information which the House will do better not to call for, and simply because it inflicts a hardship and difficulty on private individuals without the excuse of necessity, in any sense, for the public interest. Although I freely grant there is a certain amount of interest in the sense of information attaching to these returns, I cannot at all allow that any public interest is involved in the matter in the proper sense of the term; and I must observe that the general rule upon which you act is this—that when, through the incidental operation of taxes laid upon the production of commodities, you have the means of ascertaining the relative position of persons engaged in trade, you not only do not produce, but you are most careful to suppress, the evidence and information you obtain through the operation of your laws. If you choose to tax commodities, and the tax itself is a matter which the pro- ducer of those commodities may consider a hardship, you may contend that, inasmuch as the money you levy you levy for the support of the establishments of the country, the tax is necessary, and therefore you must continue to exact it; but surely when you have done that your measure ought to stop there, and you ought not in prudence to go beyond it. That, then, is the case—I hold no such doctrine as that this House is not entitled to call for any information that it pleases. This is not a question as to the abstract right of the House, but of the indulgence and forbearance which this House commonly shows in the exercise of that right. Without, in the least degree, presuming to dictate to the House, the recommendation which I humbly venture to make is, that it should show that indulgence and forbearance in the present instance; and, there being no object of public interest or importance involved, that this House should refrain from subjecting parties who are now taxed to the unnecessary evil which the publication of their private concerns would entail upon them. The hon. Gentleman who made the Motion referred to something which I certainly did not clearly understand, but certainly it was not of that important character as connected with the main subject of interest in this matter, namely, the circulation of the greater journals. I understood him to say that he was anxious to know in what proportion certain publications divided their circulation between stamped and unstamped copies, and he connected this question with the operation of the stamp law as a restrictive law on the press. Why, unfortunately, that information it is not in our power to give. I fully acknowledge his right to ask for it if we had the power to give it, but we have no power, because, although we may ascertain how many copies the Athenœum, or any other like journal, has stamped, it is not in our power to say how many copies are printed without the stamp. If it were in our power, we should be glad to give this information; but it is not in our power. And as to the information which relates to the gigantic circulation of the Times, and the comparatively insignificant circulation of the other London journals, it is in the power of the House to obtain it if it pleases. It has been given in former years. Upon further consideration, the House refused to ask for it last year, and the question now before us for consideration is, not the question of your right to call for it, but I think you will exercise your right more wisely if you refuse to make the demand in the present instance.


said he thought the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer was under some misapprehension as to what took place last year. The hon. Member for Salford (Mr. Brotherton) moved for this return himself; but the Motion was withdrawn, and the House therefore gave no decision on the question. He (Mr. Gibson) had the honour of being the Chairman of the Committee which called for this return, and it was submitted to Parliament for a series of years up to 1850. The Committee took this matter into consideration—how far private interests might be injured by the production of this return, and the Committee unanimously decided that it was desirable that the return should be made, and it was ordered, and subsequently it was moved for in an amended form, for the very purpose of being laid before Parliament, by a member of the Government. He thought there would be considerable public utility in this return being laid before the House, and should certainly support this Motion. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Craufurd) had a particular object in view in making the proposition, and if, incidentally to the attainment of that object, particular interests were affected by the disclosure of facts, why, the truth only would be told, in which case it could not be avoided with regard to those interests. He believed that it would be a matter of public utility that this return should be laid before Parliament. The object of the Motion was to ascertain what was actually the operation of the stamp upon newspapers, and he hoped that the House would support the Motion.


said that, seeing the feeling of the House to be evidently in favour of the production of the return, he should not further oppose it.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

The House adjourned at One o'clock.