HC Deb 30 June 1857 vol 146 cc686-9

, in rising to move for a copy of the case submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown respecting the Registration of Newspapers and other printed Papers, and their opinion thereon, said, that as he understood his Motion was not to be assented to by the Government, he would briefly state the grounds upon which it was based. By the 60th of George III.—one of those Acts which were passed at a time when legislation for the benefit of the subject was not so common as now—it was provided that no publication, whether a newspaper or a pamphlet, should issue unless the publisher gave a recognizance to the Crown to the extent of £400, with two sureties to the like amount, in case the printed paper should contain any seditious or blasphemous libel. Shortly afterwards, when the unreformed Parliament was endeavouring to contend against public opinion, and to put as many fetters as possible on the liberty of the press, that law was extended so as to require security not only against seditious and blasphemous libels but against every possible conviction for libel that might take place. He need hardly say that this Act was a gross obstruction to the establishment of any public journal, and the publication of any pamphlet or other literary production; but some time afterwards, when an Act was passed for regulating the stamp duty on newspapers, provision was further made that every person desiring to publish a newspaper should register himself, his printer, and his publisher, in the office of the Commissioners of Taxes. The main object of that Act was to protect the revenue by regulating the collection of the stamp duty; but it would be recollected that two Sessions ago the duty on newspapers was repealed, and, in his opinion, the securities which the law provided for the due payment of the duty ought to have ceased at the same time. When the Act was under discussion, however, great opposition was raised to its entire repeal, and the provisions affecting registration remained in force. The Government were disposed to modify those provisions, while many hon. Members at that time desired that the law should be wholly abrogated; but, in order to avoid any opposition to so desirable a measure as the repeal of the newspaper duty, they were content to accept a Bill confined to that one object, leaving untouched those restrictions, which had been introduced merely to facilitate the collection of the stamp duty. Whatever might have been the views of Parliament, it was quite clear that the moment the duty ceased to be paid, the public regarded the whole statute as obsolete; and, in point of fact, several newspapers had been published from time to time without any regard to the provisions of the law touching registration. No notice was taken of these publications by the officers of the revenue until a very recent period, when a circular was sent by the Board of Inland Revenue to many publishers, the concluding sentence of which was to the following effect:— The Board, on finding that several newspapers were published without registration or the required security since the passing of the Act, rendering optional the payment of stamp duty on newspapers, have thought it right to consult the law officers as to whether, the Act having ceased, it remained incumbent on the Board to enforce the provision regarding the registration of newspapers, and the opinion given by the law officers upon the question is, that that duty is still imposed upon the Board. Now, what he complained of was, that the Board of Inland Revenue had submitted an unfair and partial case, touching only a small part of the question, to the law officers of the Crown, who, if the whole matter had been put before them, would doubtless have given a much more comprehensive opinion than that ascribed to them in the circular to which he had referred—an opinion which would have rendered it incumbent upon the Board to prosecute, not only the publishers of newspapers, but every person who should issue any literary production in contravention of the statute. It was an abuse of power to single out a certain class of persons and punish them for violating provisions of the law which were equally disregarded by other portions of the community. The statute in question, one of the six Acts which were now universally condemned, was a disgrace to this country, and its enactments were so stringent and extravagant that no Government would venture to enforce them. It provided that any person who should print or publish for sale any newspaper, pamphlet, or other paper containing news, intelligence, or occurrences, or any remarks thereon, or upon any matter in Church or State, without giving recognizances in £400, with two sureties, to meet any charge of libel, would subject himself to certain penalties named in the Act. He did not think it possible that the Government could really intend to enforce all the provisions of such a statute, and in that case nothing could be more unfair than to apply the law to the publishers of newspapers, and exempt all other persons from its operation, and he considered the conduct of the Government in connection with this circular such an abuse of power, that he now asked the Government to lay the whole case before the House, in order that they might be able to judge whether they had dwelt with the whole subject or with only a small portion of it, with the view of making certain individuals the objects of persecution. In conclusion he might observe that he had received several petitions complaining of the manner in which the Government acted in regard to this question, and which he would lay on the table at the proper time. The hon. and learned Member concluded by moving for a copy of the case submitted to the law officers of the Crown respecting the registration of newspapers and printed papers, and their opinion thereon.

MR. W. WILLIAMS seconded the Motion. Motion made, and Question proposed, "That there be laid before this House, a Copy of the Case submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown, respecting the Registration of Newspapers and other printed Papers, and their opinion thereon.


said, he confessed he did not very clearly comprehend the object of the hon. Member's Motion. The hon. Gentleman moved for a copy of a case submitted to the law officers of the Crown on the subject of the registration of newspapers, and the opinion given thereon. It was well known to hon. Members that it was not the habit of the Government to produce the opinion of the law officers of the Crown; they were confidential opinions, given for the guidance of the Government, and the value of such opinions, the freedom of counsel between the Government and their law officers would be at an end, if they were liable to be called for by the House. With regard to the object of the Motion, therefore, he did not think he was justified in acceding to it, and he hoped the hon. Gentleman, having had an opportunity of making his statement, would not expect that it should be granted. He would, however, proceed to answer the substance of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Two years ago, when the stamp duty on newspapers, the compulsory stamp, was abolished, care was taken that the Act which was passed should not interfere with the registration of newspapers. He himself proposed the measure to the House, and he distinctly stated that it was intended simply to relieve the newspapers from the stamp duty, and not to touch any of the other parts of the law, one of which parts was the registration of newspapers, which was intended not merely for the convenience of the Government and the public, but to provide individuals who might be libelled with facilities for obtaining proof of the publication of such libels. The opinion of the law officers of the Crown was that the present law, as regarded registration, was not affected by the Act which removed the stamp duty. He did not know whether the hon. Gentleman had any doubt on the law, but if he had, he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) could only say that the law officers of the Crown had no doubt on the subject. If any complaint was made against the exercise of the discretion of the Government with regard to the use of the registration, that was a matter which might fairly be brought before the House; and if the hon. Gentleman would state to him any case of that kind, he would have it investigated; but, so far as he was aware, there was no such case.


said, he would take another opportunity of bringing the subject before the House.

Motion negatived.