HC Deb 07 April 1876 vol 228 cc1411-20

A Petition of Inhabitants of Boulogne sur Mer relative to the British Consulate in that Town having been offered to be presented,—


It will be in the recollection of the House that yesterday the hon. Baronet the Member for South Warwickshire (Sir Eardley Wilmot) offered a Petition to this House from Inhabitants of the town of Boulogne sur Mer, in France, and upon the hon. Baronet presenting the Petition I demurred to the acceptance of it because I doubted whether there was any precedent for the reception of a Petition from any foreign town; and I asked for time to consider that question. I have now to state to the House that I have searched for precedents in this matter, and I have found one, and one only, which I will now proceed to read to the House. It is as follows:— 17th February, 1831.—Lord John Russell presented a Petition from the inhabitants of Crete, complaining of their suffering under the Turkish. Government in that island. Mr. SPEAKER said that a very important question was suggested to the consideration of the House by the hon. Member for Middlesex—namely, whether petitions from persons who owed neither allegiance to, nor could claim the protection of, this country could be received. The object of the petitioners was, to obtain the interference of the Crown of Great Britain to protect them from the miseries under which they were at the present moment labouring. Was this a petition at all? and, if so, was it not a petition to the Crown of Great Britain solely? The Petition did not appear to contain any matter which brought it within the jurisdiction of the House of Commons. It commenced 'Honour- able Sirs,' and stated, that 'On the renowned English people, the lovers of liberty, the patrons and protectors of the injured, the Cretans placed their last hope of salvation, looking up to them for the advocacy of the cause of Crete.' It was clear that the Petition could not be received by the House of Commons. It was an address to the English nation. Petition withdrawn. (Decision of Mr. Speaker Manners Sutton.)"—[3 Hansard, ii.,654–5.] I think it right to observe to the House that it appears that this Petition was not received, mainly upon the ground that the Petition related to a matter not within the jurisdiction of the House of Commons. I have further to observe that the Petition from Boulogne offered to the House yesterday by the hon. Baronet refers to a matter quite within the jurisdiction of this House. The Petitioners pray that the Consulate in that town should remain a Consulate, and should not become, as proposed, a vice Consulate. I submit to the House that, if the House thinks fit to receive, as an act of grace, a Petition from inhabitants of the town of Boulogne—many of whom appear to be British subjects—upon such a matter, it may be received upon the ground that the subject-matter of the Petition refers to a question within the jurisdiction of this House. I may observe that, as a general rule, the House receives Petitions from all British subjects in all parts of the world, and it receives also Petitions from foreigners resident within the dominions of the Queen; but I am not aware of any Petition being received from the inhabitants of a foreign town, such as the Petition offered to this House yesterday. It relates, as I have already said, to a matter within the jurisdiction of this House; but, in the absence of any precedent, it will be for the House to determine whether it may fitly be received.


Sir, the House is always jealous of restrictions on the right of petitioning, and I trust that that is a feeling and a principle which will always guide the House. You, Sir, have reminded us accurately that all Her Majesty's subjects in foreign countries have the right to petition, and all foreigners in Her Majesty's dominions have also such a right. The precedent which you have quoted is one which has no affinity to the Petition of the inhabitants of Boulogne. We should recollect that at this time, when the rela- tions between the people of this country and foreign countries are so intimate, the refusal of this act of grace to foreigners, when the matter is within the jurisdiction of the House, might be disadvantageous to the public interests. I am inclined to think the course we ought to take is to receive this Petition. I believe that, certainly, as an act of courtesy and grace, and also as a precedent, it will be advantageous. I therefore move that the Petition be received.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Petition of 'Inhabitants of Boulogne sur Mer relative to the British Consulate in that Town' do lie upon the Table."—(Mr. Disraeli.)


Sir, it seems to me that this is a question on which, at any rate, it seems desirable that we should not proceed with haste. I do not know, Sir, whether I have collected with perfect accuracy the effect of what has fallen from you; but I understand the case to be this—that on the surface of the matter there appears to be a precedent against the reception of a Petition from foreigners resident in foreign countries; but that, upon the examination which you have been good enough to make, it seems there are circumstances of difference in the case, which you have made known to us, sufficient to show that we are not bound by that precedent. I imagine the effect of that to be—giving full force to the judgment you have pronounced—that while there is no precedent to require us to decline to receive the Petition, there is certainly no precedent which would bind us to receive it; that the question is one entirely new, and really amounts to this—whether we shall now make a precedent in favour of receiving Petitions from the subjects of a foreign Power not resident within the British dominions. There seems to be three classes of persons from whom we receive Petitions. In the first place, all subjects of Her Majesty residing within the limits of the British Empire, which is the simplest of all the three cases. Of their right to petition there can be no question. The second is the case of British subjects residing beyond the limits of the British Empire. That also appears to follow naturally out of their relations to the Houses of Parliament, because these persons, though temporarily non-resident, or even if perma- nently non-resident, are in no respect dismissed from their allegiance. All our rights over them exist and remain intact; and, consequently, all their rights in relation to us, as they are doing nothing illegitimate to us, would be held to remain intact also. Then, thirdly, there is the case mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, of foreigners resident within the limits of the British Empire. I understand we are in the habit of receiving Petitions from such foreigners. That likewise appears to me to be a perfectly clear case in point of principle; for such foreigners, living under the protection of our laws, apart altogether from what they may continue to owe to their own country, owe for the time temporary allegiance to this country. I agree that there is force, as an appeal to feeling in the consideration mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, that it is desirable to perform any act of grace or courtesy towards the inhabitants of foreign countries, provided we can perform it without apprehension of probable future difficulties in consequence of our act. I recollect, in one instance during my official experience, having received a memorial from a large number of wine growers in France. I did not feel any difficulty whatever as a Member of the Executive Government in answering that memorial; but that is a very different question from that now before us. You have stated, Sir, that this is a matter within the jurisdiction of the House of Commons, and I perfectly understand the sense of those words is, that it is a matter in which this House is perfectly free to act if it thinks fit. Whether there should be a Consulate or a vice-Consulate is a matter on which the House, if it thinks fit, may claim to give an opinion, by address or otherwise. At the same time, I would observe, it seems to me that if a Petition of this kind is to be received we have not, in the first place, those means of examining or inquiring into the circumstances under which the Petition was prepared, or of dealing with it upon its merits, which we would have in respect to all Petitions proceeding from our own fellow-subjects, because we have no rights over the parties who present them. In the next place, I am rather struck by the nature of the Petition. This is a Petition to the effect that some measure which I presume has been contemplated by Her Majesty's Government for the reduction of a Consulate to a vice-Consulate—very properly suggested by the vigilant zeal of the Secretary of the Treasury, whom I see in his place—may not be carried into effect. It occurs to me that there is some danger in giving encouragement to Petitions of this particular description; because I can imagine it to be possible—although, of course, I have no knowledge of the facts of the present case—that some one whom Her Majesty's Government intended to make a vice-Consul might be possessed—and, perhaps, very properly—of so high a sense of his own merits as to think it would be much better that he should be made a Consul, and therefore would make use of his influence in a foreign town to get signatures to a Petition to be presented to this House praying that it might be a Consulate instead of a vice-Consulate—or, in other words, that he might be a Consul instead of a vice-Consul. There may be some danger, I think, of Petitions of this kind being got up; but, independently of that, I am very reluctant to come with haste to any affirmative decision on this matter. I cannot escape from the idea that there are possibilities of serious inconveniences involved in the reception of Petitions from the subjects of a foreign Power. We have no rights over them; they have no relations to us. Courtesy and grace are excellent things; but the right of petitioning has nothing to do with courtesy or grace. It is a security for the discharge of mutual rights and mutual obligations.I think that if we heard that the inhabitants of Dover were petitioning the French Legislative Chambers, as Englishmen we should not much approve of it, and should not like to see the example followed. I do not now wish to give a final opinion on the subject, and if we were called upon to give a final opinion now, I should give it reluctantly. We should keep on safe ground. I do not see any principle leading us to pronounce an affirmative decision on the matter; and if the question were to be decided now, my disposition would be to decline to receive the Petition.


The right hon. Gentleman has classed among the Petitions that ought properly to be received by this House Petitions sent by subjects of Her Majesty temporarily residing abroad; and that is precisely the case in regard to this Petition. There are numerous signatures of Her Majesty's subjects residing in Boulogne attached to the Petition, and therefore, according to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, it ought to be received. There are also signatures of certain French subjects, and to those the objection of the right hon. Gentleman should be rather applied; but it would be an act of discourtesy to strike out a number of signatures from a Petition sent by those who are unquestionably subjects of Her Majesty, petitioning this House on matters most germane to their interests and feelings. Therefore, I should say, upon the whole, it would be better to accept the Petition as it stands.


having presented the Petition, wished to explain that the facts of the case were these—For a long time there had been a British Consulate, but it was reduced to a vice-Consulate, and the object of the Petitioners was to restore the office to its former rank. A great many English people resided in Boulogne, which was a town increasing rapidly in importance. One-half of the imports, amounting altogether to £35,000,000 sterling, from France to this country, and one-third of the exports from the United Kingdom to France, passed through Boulogne, and a new quay—the Quai Napoleon—had been opened, affording very superior accommodation to every class of ships; and the Petitioners felt that the dignity of this country was not adequately represented by a vice-Consulate in such an important town.


I addressed the House under an entirely false apprehension that this was a Petition from foreigners. Of course, I do not wish to treat it as being vitiated by the presence of a certain number of foreign signatures. Perhaps, Sir, you will be good enough to state to the House the nature of the Petition.


When the hon. Baronet presented this Petition yesterday, I particularly asked him whether it was from British residents in Boulogne. Had he answered in the affirmative, I should have made no objection to the reception of the Petition; but the hon. Baronet read the heading—"The humble Petition of Inhabitants of Boulogne-sur-Mer, in France;" and upon that, I demurred to its being received, upon the ground that it was from the inhabitants of a foreign town. The hon. Baronet stated that it was signed largely—and on the face of the Petition it appeared to be so—by British residents; but I could not do otherwise than regard a Petition with that formal heading, as a Petition from inhabitants of Boulogne-sur-Mer.


said, they were placed in a position in which they ought to be careful how they acted. The Petition came from the inhabitants of a French town, and was largely signed by French names. The first name subscribed to it was that of a Frenchman, who described himself as Mayor of Boulogne. No doubt, there were English names to the Petition, but they had no evidence to show that the English Petitioners were not naturalized French subjects. At all events, the Petition emanated from a foreign town, and there was no precedent for the reception of such a Petition, although there was no precedent the other way. Under the circumstances, he could not but think that the best course to pursue would be to send the Petition to a Committee, who would search for precedents and report to the House on the subject.


thought it would be a most dangerous precedent to allow the Petition to be received without further inquiry. He could conceive nothing more compromising to our relations with foreign countries than to allow inhabitants of them to appeal to the English House of Commons. Circumstances were possible under which the inhabitants of a foreign town might appeal to that House against an act of legislation which was desired by their own Government. For instance, a treaty of extradition might have been signed, requiring an Act of Parliament to be passed in consequence, and the inhabitants of some town in France or Germany, or anywhere else, might object to such a law being made, and appeal to the House of Commons. He therefore agreed in the view of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Chester, that an opportunity for deliberation should be given before the Petition was received.


We seem to be a little at issue as to whether this is really and substantially a French, or an English Petition. I would venture to submit that it would be a good plan to refer the Petition to the Committee on Petitions, to report to us as to what is the nature of the Petition. We have not the facts before us which it is necessary we should have before we can arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. We do not know whether it is a French or an English Petition. The initiatory names appear to be French, and other names appear to be English. Before we came to a decision, we ought to have before us the report of our own Committee on the subject.


asked, whether a Petition would not have to be received and lie upon the Table, before it could be referred to the Committee on Petitions?


Any Petition to be referred to the Committee on Petitions, or any other Committee of the House, must first be received by this House.


said, that the precedent they were about to set would have an interesting, if not an important, aspect in reference to a large number of citizens of the United States. He had seen it stated in the public prints that a Petition to that House, or to the Government, was being very largely signed—indeed, it was said that it would bear the signatures of 3,000,000 of Irishmen, now citizens of the United States—praying for the release of the political prisoners. He mentioned the fact in order that the House might see what was before them if they made a precedent by receiving the Petition under consideration.


said, that it was not easy for hon. Members at the lower end of the House to catch every word that was uttered at the upper end, but he agreed with those hon. Members who held that they were in danger of establishing a precedent which would lead to complications practically unlimited. Religious Petitions in large numbers would flow in from Continental States, and other evils would arise. He therefore hoped the Petition would not be accepted without consideration, and at all events, without consulting the tribunal which generally inquired into these subjects.


said, the Petition now in course of signature in the United States was to be presented not to Parliament, but to Congress, on behalf of an imprisoned American citizen. It was necessary to correct the statement of the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Sullivan) in that respect, lest what he had said should deter the House from acting on the suggestion of the Prime Minister. The Speaker had made an observation which afforded a sufficient protection against any possible danger in future, for he had pointed out that the Petition referred to a subject over which the House had special jurisdiction. The cases in which they were likely to be appealed to by foreign citizens on matters over which the House had jurisdiction must be very few indeed. He saw no reason for delaying the decision of the House in assenting on grounds of courtesy and grace to the Motion of the Prime Minister.


said, that the remarks of the hon. Member who has just spoken supplied further reasons for doubting the expediency of receiving the Petition. Although the Petition referred to by the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Sullivan) might not be intended for the House of Commons, there was no reason, if this, as he thought, dangerous precedent were to be established, why another Petition should not be got up in America and addressed to the House. The hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. O'Connor Power) had said nothing in proof of his allegation that there were few questions beyond the jurisdiction of the House on which foreigners were likely to address it. He believed there were many such questions which might crop up any day. He would refer to only one. They had heard of a proposal to appoint an English Commissioner with reference to the finances of Egypt. Was it impossible that the merchants of Alexandria should get up a Petition to the House on that subject; and if this Petition were received how could they refuse to entertain a Petition of the kind which he suggested? In such a case, there was no knowing what dangers it might lead to. The precedent would, in his mind, be a very doubtful one, and ought not to be set without due deliberation.


The discussion which has taken place upon the subject shows that there is a great deal of doubt in the minds of many hon. Members as to the proper course to be pursued upon this occasion, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree with those who have spoken, at all events, in thinking that in regard to an act of grace to a foreign town the House should be unanimous, and that we should have no division. It seems to me that a very grave question may arise as to whether it is right, in consideration of our diplomatic relations with other countries, that we should receive a Petition from a foreign town or country without knowing whether their Ambassador in this country is acquainted with what they have done, or has sanctioned it. As right hon. Gentlemen opposite who have been in office will remember, in dealing with a foreign subject we always take care that he approaches us through his Ambassador, and I think that is a subject well worthy of consideration. I would therefore suggest that my right hon. Friend should withdraw the Motion he has made, so that we may move for a Committee to inquire into the question, and report upon it.


As there seems to exist in the House some doubt and great anxiety not to have any division of opinion, I will withdraw the Motion I have made, and avail myself of the suggestion of my right hon. Friend.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


I think the best way will be to give Notice that on Monday a Motion will be made for a Committee to which this Petition can be referred.