§ MR. CHARLES FORSTER
said, that, as Chairman of the Committee on Petitions, he wished to call attention to a Petition presented on the 26th of June, purporting to be the Petition of inhabitants of Halifax and its environs. It contained some 800 manufactured signatures, which were in the handwriting of one or two individuals, and about seventy of them were absurd applications of common words. He had felt it his duty to communicate with his hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Akroyd), by whom the Petition was presented, feeling sure that if the hon. Member had known the character of the Petition he would never have presented it. Although it was impossible to make a Member responsible for all the signatures attached to a Petition he presented, it was desirable that a Member should, as far as possible, acquaint himself with the character of a Petition and with the signatures attached to it before presenting it. One of the many reasons for requiring that a Member should endorse a Petition before presenting it was that the House might have some guarantee of its genuineness. The Petition in question afforded another illustration of the propriety of obtaining, if possible, the residences of the persons who signed a Petition. The Committee on 1125 Public Petitions had it in contemplation to propose a revision of the Standing Orders, with the view of requiring that residences should be given; but they had hitherto refrained from making the proposition, because they did not wish even to appear to limit the Right of Petition. They had, however, adopted means to mark distinctly and give additional value to Petitions in which addresses followed the signatures. It was desirable to have residences, because in case of abuse they might furnish a clue to guilty persons. In the case of this Petition, to which 6,432 signatures were attached, there was not a single address, and only in one case was there a description. Two Sessions ago he brought under the notice of the House a flagrant violation of the Right of Petition, and the House thought it right to punish by committal to Newgate the persons against whom the Committee reported. He was glad that he was not called upon now to press for the adoption of a similar course. In this case there had not been an organized system of fraud, but rather a want of care on the part of those who got up the Petition, and ignorance of its character on the part of those by whom it was directly transmitted. Yet the House would feel it was impossible that the Resolution ordering it to lie upon the table could be carried out, and he moved that the House affix such a stigma to the Petition as would be implied by having the Order read and discharged, and the Petition rejected.
§ Moved, "That the Order of the 26th Day of June, that the Petition of 'Inhabitants of Halifax and its environs' do lie upon the table, be read, and discharged; and that the Petition be rejected."—(Mr. Charles Forster.)
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
I think the House will feel it a duty to support the hon. Member for Walsall. There can be no doubt that this is a Question upon which the House ought to express its opinion. There really is no Right which is more valuable than the Right of Petition, and no opinion more incorrect than that which supposes that that Right is merely a form. The Petitions that are presented really do much to affect the opinions of this House. It is a mistake to suppose because their presentation is not preceded by long speeches, and followed by discussions, as before 1832, owing to the increase of the business of the House, that therefore the House does not attend to them. It is not so, because the Committee on Petitions examines them all, and 1126 those that are important are printed. The Reports of the Committee are issued to hon. Members, whose conduct is very much influenced by the Petitions that are presented. It is important to observe that what tends to diminish the value of the Right of Petition is, not any neglect which they may receive in this House, but the levity with which persons outside may send them here; and it ought to be impressed upon the public that the influence which the Right of Petition, properly exercised, has over the course of legislation is seriously diminished by facts such as those which have been brought before us by the hon. Member. The House is perfectly sensible of the value of the service rendered by the Committee on Petitions, and especially by the hon. Gentleman who has on more than one occasion called attention to malpractices of this kind; and I think it incumbent upon the House to watch carefully whatever tends to abridge the Right and value of Petitioning, and to show its determination to preserve the Right in its full force by the rejection of any Petition brought before the House in an improper manner.
§ MR. AKROYD
said, he wished to state the circumstances under which he presented the Petition now referred to. It was sent to him by the secretary of the Halifax branch of the Licensed Victuallers' Association. It was in his hands only half-an-hour before he presented it on the day when the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. J. A. Smith) moved the second reading of the Bill for the closing of public houses on Sundays. He only gave the Petition that general examination which is usually given by hon. Members, especially when Petitions are so numerously signed as this was, or purported to be, the number of signatures being 7,000. He saw nothing about it that appeared to be irregular, or that excited his suspicion. On bearing the facts which had been communicated to the House, he wrote to the secretary of the Halifax Licensed Victuallers; but before that letter could have reached him, the secretary, hearing from the secretary of the London Licensed Victuallers' Association, that there had been some irregularity, addressed to him a letter which he received that morning. The letter said—I have heard that the petition sent from Halifax was disgracefully signed by some evil-disposed person or persons; but, Sir, it is not with our knowledge. The sheets were given to two men to deliver to various houses, get signed, collect, and piece together. The men were in the 1127 trade, and I thought they would do the job right; but it appears they have not done so. I hope you will see the Committee and explain to them the way it has been done, and that the licensed victuallers of Halifax had no knowledge of anything wrong in the petition, or they would not have allowed it.He had also received another letter, written after further inquiries had been made, which stated that the sheets had been filled with bonâ fide names, but that these had been taken away and others substituted for them. He entirely concurred with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in thinking that the Right of Petition was one that ought to be jealously guarded against possible abuse. He would make further inquiries respecting this Petition; and he could assure the House that the Licensed Victuallers' Association would do all in their power to prevent the repetition of such conduct as had been practised in this instance.
§ Petition rejected.