HC Deb 07 April 1876 vol 228 cc1395-403

Notice taken of the language of Petitions in favour of the Monastic and Conventual Institutions Bill from Kensington [presented 28th March];from Broad-stairs [presented 28th March]; and from Avebury [presented 31st March]; and doubts having been expressed whether the name of the Honourable Member which appeared upon those Petitions had been affixed by his authority:—


said, it would be in the recollection of the House that about the same hour on the previous day the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) moved that the Order for the reception of a Petition in favour of the Monastic and Conventual Institutions Bill, presented to the House from certain Protestant Dissenters at Chatham on the 28th March, and purporting to bear the hon. Member's signature, should be discharged, on the gronnd that he had not seen the Petition, that the signature was not placed there by himself or by anyone having his authority, and that he believed he had never presented it. He (Mr. Callan) now wished to move that the Order for the reception of three other Petitions of a similar nature, from Kensington, Broad-stairs, and Avebury, in Wiltshire, should be discharged. To these Petitions there was attached what purported to be the name of the same hon. Member, the handwriting being found on comparison to be identical with that of the signature to other Petitions which had been presented on various subjects during the present Session by the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, who must be unfortunate, indeed, if his name had been forged to all those Petitions, presented at various dates extending from the 24th February to the present month. He (Mr. Callan) was surprised to have been informed that day, that at the very time when the hon. Member for North Warwickshire was moving in the House that the Order for the reception of the Petition from Chatham should be discharged, he was aware that other Petitions to which his name was in a similar manner affixed, and which contained similar offensive and disgraceful charges, were on the records of the House. He (Mr. Callan) did not move for the discharge of the Order relating to these Petitions because the hon. Member's name was not attached to them by himself, or by his authorization; but in the cause of the honour and prestige of the House, which ought not to be regarded as a receptacle for documents which were fitter for the atmosphere of Holywell Street. In these Petitions charges were brought against the sisters and daughters of Members of that House, as honourable as the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, the Petitioners praying that the Bill might pass because convents were used to inveigle and corrupt Protestant pupils; that many of the nuns had "a hell here and a hell hereafter;" that monasteries and convents "combine in themselves the worst evils of the workhouse, the asylum, the prison, and places of bad repute." These were some of the allegations contained in Petitions bearing the name of the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Warwickshire. Whether the hon. Member would repudiate the other Petitions as well as that to which he had called the attention of the House on the previous day it was for him to decide. On a former occasion when the hon. Member's statement was challenged by Sir Charles Clifford, he sheltered himself under the plea of Privilege. Would he now shelter himself under a similar plea? The Petitions went on to make the most extravagant assertions, saying—"that nuns were treated most cruelly, and were made the victims of horrors which far surpassed anything that had entered the mind of the most fanatical enemy of the convents;" and that the inmates of the convents might "be put to death or much worse." He (Mr. Callan), as a Catholic Member of that House, indignantly repudiated such charges, and he should be sorry to be proud, as he was, to be a Member of that Houes, if he made any such charge affecting any lady belonging to any other Member; or if he made such a charge, he should not shelter himself under the plea of Privilege, but come forward manfully and endeavour, if he could, to substantiate such charge. He could not but stigmatize these charges as disgraceful to those who signed and forged them; for he could not possibly believe that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire affixed his name to them. He begged to move that the Orders respectively made for receiving these Petitions be discharged.


seconded the Motion, feeling as he did that the language of the Petitions in question was most un-Parliamentary and scandalous, to say nothing of its being most unkind, involving, as it did, such reflections on the friends of Members of that House. He happened to represent a large Catholic constituency, in which there were several of these convents and monasteries, with most of which he had a personal acquaintance; and he maintained that these institutions had been of the utmost use, diffusing as they did amongst the poorer classes an amount of knowledge that was incalculable. He was acquainted with one in the county of Kildare, in which those ladies who were spoken of in such horrible terms not only imparted knowledge to the young every day, but also daily fed the children when they came to school. All that had been done by voluntary contribution. The work had been carried on by ladies of the highest rank. One of them was a sister of Lord O'Hagan. There were also monasteries the heads of which were gentlemen as much as any Gentleman of that House, and they adopted rules all of which were for the good of the community. The work was not done for gain, nor for anything but the good of their fellow-creatures. He was not going to say whether it was right or wrong to go into those places; but he maintained that it was a scandal that those men—those holy men—should be vilified in the language of the Petitions in question. Those institutions ought not to be looked upon either with the jaundiced eye of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire, nor with the bigoted views of the hon. Member for Peterborough. He believed there was not a single Catholic Member of that House who had not, either directly, or indirectly, some relative or some friend in those institutions, and it would be wrong of them not to get up and protest against Petitions containing such disgraceful language being placed on the Table of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That the Order, That the Petition from Kensington [presented 28th March] do lie upon the Table, be read, and discharged."—(Mr. Callan.)


said, he should be sorry that it should be left entirely to Catholic or Irish Members to speak indignantly against the language employed in these Petitions. For his own part he shared, in common with all English Members, he was sure, the utmost indignation that Petitions making charges so gross against ladies who devoted their lives, whether rightly or not, to the objects of these institutions, should be presented to that House. On the other hand, he thought that the hon. Member for Dundalk (Mr. Callan) had addressed to the hon. Member for North Warwickshire language which was hardly justifiable. The hon. Member for Dundalk must know, as every hon. Member knew, that the Member for North Warwickshire was one of the most veracious, honourable, and straightforward Members of that House. The language which had been used towards the hon. Member was almost menacing. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire had not denied that the signature to the Petitions was not in his own handwriting. ["No, no!"] If he had done so, he (Mr. Mundella), for one, would believe him. No one would question the truthfulness of the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Warwickshire. The hon. Member might have presented the Petitions, as probably the majority of hon. Members had presented Petitions, without mastering their contents. He (Mr. Mundella) would acknowledge that he had frequently done so. The mastering of all the Petitions that hon. Members were asked to present would be a heavy burden for those who represented large constituencies. He himself sometimes received as many as 20 Petitions to present on the same day, and it would be extremely difficult for him to read and master all their contents; but the present instance was a warning to be careful, and for the future he should endeavour to do so. He supported the Motion that the Order that the Petitions lie on the Table be discharged, and only regretted that anything should have been said by the hon. Mover against the character of the hon. Member for North Warwickshire.


Sir, I think I have some reason to complain of the conduct of the hon. Member for Dundalk (Mr. Callan), who, with a Notice on the Paper with reference to the discharge of an Order relating to a Petition from Chatham, which I yesterday felt it my duty to make, comes down and introduces another subject altogether respecting other Petitions, without giving any public Notice or sending me, as is usual, private Notice. I had reason to believe that my name was improperly attached to the Petition for the discharge of which the Order was made yesterday. That was unquestionably a breach of the Privilege of the House, if the offence alleged were committed. I instantly moved that the Petition be discharged, and I immediately put myself in communication with the Petitioners to know how the Petition was prepared, and how it was transmitted to this House. It is totally impossible that I could receive any reply up to this time to my communication. Before I could do so, the hon. Member for Dundalk, with a Notice on the Paper to call attention to the subject of the Chatham Petition, comes down to the House to raise a question of Privilege, of which he has given no private Notice, upon other Petitions that, he alleges, were presented in my name, and which, so far as any assistance the hon. Member has given me, I never had the opportunity of examining. The hon. Member is perfectly aware of what I said yesterday—that I was under the impression that undue liberties had been taken with my name; but before it is possible for me to ascertain whether that has been done, he comes down to raise a question as he pretends, of Privilege, but which I utterly deny to be a question of Privilege in any sense, and takes advantage of the impossibility of my having informed myself to bring this accusation before the House. Now, subject to your decision, Sir, I deny that the hon. Member has made out any ground of Privilege. If Petitioners chose to state to this House that all one side of St. James's Street consisted of brothels, that is not a breach of Privilege. The House may think fit to examine as to the truth of the allegation made, and condemn the assertion; but it is no breach of Privilege. Nothing is a breach of Privilege except allegations, or some matter in a Petition that is treasonable.


interposing, said he had not moved on a question of Privilege. What he had moved was, that the Orders for receiving the Petitions be discharged.


Then I simply ask you. Sir, whether the hon. Member for Dundalk is in Order in rising now on a question, which he admits is not one of Privilege, to call the attention of the House to Petitions presented yesterday, having given no Notice of his intention to do so?


The hon. Member for North Warwickshire yesterday moved that an Order for a Petition, to which his name was attached, lying on the Table be discharged. That Motion was made without Notice, and was agreed to by the House. I considered that he was justified in making that Motion without Notice, because if not a breach of Privilege, certainly a gross irregularity had been committed by affixing the hon. Gentleman's name to a Petition without his leave. Now the hon. Member for Dundalk, finding that other Petitions identical in terms and language, and having the same signature affixed to them, have been presented to this House and received by this House, he, exercising his right, as I think, has moved that the Order that these Petitions lie upon the Table, be discharged.


Mr. Speaker, if you rule that this is a question of Privilege I am perfectly satisfied. According to inquiries I have made, the affixing of a Member's name to a document that he has not authorized is a breach of Privilege. I have not alleged that my name has been improperly attached to these Petitions; and for this reason—simply, because I have not had time to ascertain how nay name has been attached. In the case of the Chatham Petition the name was misspelt, and it was not therefore my name which was attached. In the case of other Petitions, so far as I have been able to ascertain, my name is rightly spelt. I therefore ask time to inquire; but I hope the House will be cautious in what they are about to do. I do not conceive that this is a question of Privilege. I have asserted that, however gross may be the allegations introduced into any Petitions presented to this House, and however little the hon. Member who presents them may agree with them, unless there is something in them that is treasonable, seditious, or disrespectful to Parliament, such Petitions are no breach of Privi- lege. I humbly submit to the House that if they are asked to deal with any Petition on any other ground than that of Privilege, the ordinary rule of the House ought to be observed, and Notice ought to be given of the intention to call the attention of the House to those matters. This is a very grave question, because it involves true Privilege—the proper order of the Business of this House, and the possibility of Members being prepared to deal with the questions that are committed to its attention. I for one am quite prepared to resist this Motion, because I say there has been no breach of Privilege proved; and if it is the intention of the House to examine any Petition on other grounds than a breach of Privilege, Notice ought to be given to the Member who appears to have presented it, and to the House of the intention of some other Member to call attention to the contents of the Petition.


did not see how it was possible to resist the Motion on those grounds. He did not understand the hon. Member for North Warwickshire to admit that it was his signature attached to the Petitions.


The hon. Member will excuse me. I am not in a position to deny that my signature was attached to these Petitions by some one claiming authority from me. It is impossible, without Notice, that I should be in that position.


thought that raised the question whether they ought not to adhere to the rule that the Member's name must be attached to the Petition he presents, and that it must be signed by himself, and not by any one for him. The hon. Member for North Warwickshire ought either to say that he had himself signed the Petition; or, if he would not, they ought to be discharged, because they had not got the signature of the hon. Member who presented them, as required by the Sessional Order passed at the beginning of each Session. He suggested last year, when a discussion took place on Petitions containing objectionable language, that it was almost impossible to prescribe, once for all, limits to the language in which any Petition might be couched. It was a very dangerous thing to draw a hard-and-fast line, and to say that a Petition which might contain language distasteful to some portion of the House should not be received. But he also stated that it would be a dangerous and bad thing to allow the Table of the House to be made the vehicle of abusive and scandalons language by irresponsible parties. He suggested that if they were to be tolerably liberal in the receipt of Petitions there should be an understanding that if, after a certain time, no hon. Member was prepared to move on those Petitions, an Order should be made by the House to discharge them. The Petition in question was one which it would be very difficult for any hon. Member to present, as it contained charges which were of a dreadful nature, and it ought not to lie on the Table for any length of time, unless some hon. Member was prepared to make a Motion on it or deal with it in some way. The Order of the House required that the signature of the hon. Member should be affixed by himself, and that not having been done, the proper course would be to discharge the Petition on that ground alone.


Sir, the rule of the House is, that the language of Petitions should be respectful, decorous, and temperate, and, having read the Petition in question since I have been in the House, it appears to me neither respectful, decorous, nor temperate. I think the House ought to show its disapprobation of Petitions couched in such language as the one before us. But I do not wish to dwell further on that point, because there is a technical point before us which ought to guide us. The rule that every Petition should be authenticated by the signature of the Member who presents it is one to which we ought to adhere even with severity. I do not see myself that there is any mode by which we can secure the presentation of Petitions expressed in language which is respectful, decorous, and temperate if we do not adhere to that rule. I shall be prepared, therefore, to support the Motion that the Order that this Petition do lie on the Table be discharged.


begged to withdraw his opposition to the Motion for this reason—that it was no longer pretended that it was a question of Privilege. If the House thought fit to deal with Petitions without Notice, he bowed to that decision.


thought some opportunity should be afforded the hon. Member for North Warwickshire to clear this matter up, by showing distinctly that he did not attach his signature to the Petitions, or authorize it to be done by any other person. He would therefore move the Adjournment of the Debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Sir William Fraser.)


said, he understood that his hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire admitted that he did not sign the Petitions himself, and that he was not prepared to say whether he gave his authority for such signature or not. The fact that they were not signed by himself was sufficient, and it was on that ground alone the Government supported the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That the Petition be withdrawn.

Ordered, That the Order, That the Petition from Broad-stairs [presented 28th March] do lie upon the Table, be read, and discharged.

Ordered, That the Petition be withdrawn.

Ordered, That the Order, That the Petition from Avebury [presented31st March] do lie upon the Table, be read, and discharged.

Ordered, That the Petition be withdrawn.