HC Deb 30 July 1872 vol 213 cc113-7

Special Report [22nd July] considered


rose to move that the Order of the 11th day of this instant July, "That the Petition of the Inhabitants of Manchester, Salford, and district, praying for alterations in Sale of Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Bill, do lie upon the Table," be read, and discharged, and that the said Petition be rejected. The hon. Gentleman said this was the third occasion during the last seven years that it had been his duty to make a special Report to the House upon a Petition. In the first case it was found that there were a number of forged signatures, and a Committee of Investigation was appointed, over which he had the honour to preside. That Committee brought home the forgeries to the guilty persons, and they were committed to Newgate for the remainder of the Session. That was at the beginning and not at the end of the Session, however; and in that case there was a clue to guide the Committee in their inquiries. But in in this case there was no clue, and as Parliament would very soon be prorogued, he felt that he should not be justified in proposing the appointment of a Committee of Inquiry, which would occasion some expenditure of time and labour, with no certainty that it would not be so much time and labour lost. At the same time, it would not be consistent with the dignity of Parliament to allow the matter to be passed over, and after much reflection, and taking counsel with the highest authorities, he was of opinion that the simplest and most convenient course would be to follow the precedent of the Halifax Petition in 1867, and to move that the Order be discharged and the Petition rejected. The present Petition had all the characteristics of the one from Halifax. In the case of the Halifax Petition there was a wanton invention of names, but not the use of forged signatures. No doubt, the House would be amused to hear some things in connection with the Petition, and the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Home Department would be surprised to find that two of his Colleagues sitting on the Treasury Bench were opposed to the Bill, which he, in the name of the Government, was now endeavouring to pass into law, and that their names were appended to the Petition. The name of the Prime Minister appeared twice—first as "William Ewart Gladstone, Scotland," and next as "William Ewart Gladstone, London;" and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was irreverently described as "Bob Lowe," was also represented as a supporter of the Petition. Then followed the names of other Members of the House, including the hon. Member for the city of Kilkenny (Sir John Gray), the hon. Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson), the noble Lord the Member for Argyleshire (the Marquess of Lorne), the right hon. Member for Birmingham, who was described as "John Bright, of Anne Street, Manchester," and there also appeared the name of the Marquess of Hastings as M. P. for Oldham. There were also, he was sorry to say, some disgraceful signatures. According to the Return furnished by the Clerk to the Committee there were 117 fictitious names; but disgraceful as that was, he should not have moved its rejection had it not appeared on a close examination that more than half of the signatures were in the same handwriting. Under these circumstances, the House might fairly treat the Petition as a fraud, and follow the precedent which was set in the Halifax case. If it should be considered that this was a harsh measure with regard to the bonâ fide signatures, his reply must be that the promoters should have exercised greater caution in the choice of agents. He was not prepared to charge the promoters of the Petition with being cognizant of this fraud; for he had no doubt that in this as in other cases fly sheets had been entrusted to inferior agents, who were paid according to the number of signatures they obtained, and who, in order to secure the promised reward, had taxed their ingenuity to find names to make up the requisite number. Considering the large number of bonâ fide signatures attached to the Petition, if the parties were prepared to offer explanations with the view of getting the Petition restored, and should instruct any hon. Member to move for a Committee, he should not oppose the Motion, although he should decline to serve on the Committee. He denied the rumour that the Committee on Public Petitions had been led to examine this Petition at the instigation of the United Kingdom Alliance, and said their attention was directed to the supposed character of the Petition by the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Jacob Bright), who only discharged his duty in giving information respecting a Petition which came from his own constituency. It was scarcely necessary to say that if their attention had been drawn to Petitions on the other side of this question a similar course would have been pursued, for the Committee knew no distinction of parties. Having made their Report they desired now to leave the matter with the House, merely remarking that the sacred and constitutional right of petitioning would degenerate into a farce if such proceedings were allowed to pass unnoticed. The hon. Member concluded by moving the rejection of the Petition.


said, it was on his suggestion that this Petition was examined, for finding that the Petition was suspected in Manchester he thought it fair to the promoters that inquiry should be made; and, on the other hand, he considered that it would be very unfair, if the Petition was dishonest, that the great constituency of Manchester should be misrepresented in that House. It was stated by one of the promoters at the Home Office that the Petition would have 91,000 signatures; whereas there turned out to be only 69,000. The promoters did not think proper to submit the Petition for presentation to one of the Members for Manchester and Salford, but asked the hon. and learned Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Serjeant Simon) to present it. That hon. and learned Gentleman had been attacked most unfairly for the course he had taken, for he acted in perfect fairness. It might be observed from this Petition how difficult it was in Manchester to get a Petition numerously signed in favour of extending the hours for the sale of drink; because from the justices on the bench to the poorest man and woman in the streets, there was a general feeling that these hours should be limited, while very wide support was given to the Bill of the Home Secretary upon this question. He ventured to say that no evidence could be adduced to prove that the temperance people had tampered with this Petition.


regretted that the hon. Member (Mr. Jacob Bright) had introduced the question of the feeling of the town of Manchester on the subject-matter of the Petition, for this was merely a matter in which the credit of the House and of certain parties to the Petition was involved. He thought the hon. Member for Walsall (Mr. C. Forster) had taken the proper course in moving simply that the Order should be discharged. At the same time, if the period of the Session had permitted he should have been in favour of an inquiry, for unless measures were taken to prevent the recurrence of cases of this kind the right of Petition would become a farce. He had received letters from the neighbourhood of Manchester intimating that the false signatures had not been affixed by the promoters, but by persons who differed from their views. He declined to accept that explanation, and he hoped the House would not receive any explanation of that kind. In a future Session it might be found proper to institute an investigation. There was often too much elasticity in the getting up of Petitions; but there had seldom been a grosser abuse than this.


said, he had communicated with the hon. Members for Manchester and Salford before he presented this Petition, and he might explain that the promoters selected him, as they stated, because, having practised many years on the Northern Circuit, he was well known in Lancashire, and also because he represented what they regarded as a working-class constituency. The deputation whom he accompanied to the Home Secretary assured him that the greatest care had been exercised in getting up the Petition. In fact, no one could have supposed that men of such intelligence could have been so foolish as to send a Petition in this manner; and he believed still that those whom he saw knew nothing of these transactions. The moment his attention was called to these improper signatures he communicated with the parties, as he stated on a former occasion; and the statements in the letter to which he then referred he was bound to say remained wholly unsupported by any evidence. If an inquiry was instituted he should be happy to serve on the Committee and do all in his power to unravel the mystery and bring the offenders to the Bar of the House.


alluded to the means adopted in large towns to obtain signatures to monster Petitions, and mentioned a Sheffield Petition which he said had been improperly signed.


expressed a hope that this matter would not be allowed to drop, but that the subject would be brought before the House at the beginning of next Session. He wished to know whether the parties guilty of this gross offence were not answerable to criminal procedure for forgery?


replied that there had been no attempt to defraud individuals, though undoubtedly this was an fraudulent abuse of the right of petitioning.


said, that as his name had been attached to the Petition, he begged to assure the House that if he had put his signature to the document, it would not have been at a sober moment. He could not imagine a more gross outrage upon that House and the public than had been committed in this case, and regretted that the Committee on Public Petitions had not arrived at a different conclusion, or that the authorities of the House had not taken the matter in hand.


said, there could be no doubt that the attempt to deceive that House on points on which it was anxious to ascertain the wishes of the people was a very great offence. The adoption of the Motion would not preclude the House from appointing a Select Committee next Session, and he hoped that during the Recess some means would be taken of detecting the offenders.

Motion agreed to.

Ordered, That the Order of the 11th day of this instant July, that the Petition of the Inhabitants of Manchester, Salford, and district, praying for alterations in Sale of Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Bill, do lie upon the Table, be read, and discharged.

Ordered, That the Petition be rejected.

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