HC Deb 28 May 1883 vol 279 cc940-1

asked the Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Petitions, Whether, considering that the Committee have reported to the House in their tenth Report of this Session that, in the case of no less than twenty-eight Petitions on various subjects, many of the signatures are in the same handwriting, the Committee will take the facts into their further consideration, with a view to the suggestion of some means for preventing for the future such breaches of the Orders of the House?


Sir, in answer to the Question of my hon. Friend, I regret to state that not only in the 10th, but also in previous Reports during the present Session, the Committee on Public Petitions have been obliged to notice serious irregularities in connection with the signatures to the Petitions. The Report to which he more specially refers contains upwards of 30 cases where the signatures are in the same handwriting, with other informalities, such as signatures on slips of paper attached afterwards to the Petition. Such facts, no doubt, constitute a breach of the Orders of the House, which, according to our invariable practice, have been set forth in our Reports. But in answer to the further Question of my hon. Friend as to— Whether the Committee will take these facts into further consideration, with a view to preventing for the future such breaches of the Orders of the House? I have to state that, in the opinion of the Committee, this is a Question rather for the House than for us. Our special function is to examine the Petitions to see if the Standing Orders have been complied with, and to report to the House any infraction thereof. There, properly speaking, our duty ends, though we are always ready to follow any direction of the House on the subject. I may here remind my hon. Friend that in the Session of 1879, in response to the general feeling of the House, on behalf of the Committee I proposed and carried a new Standing Order, providing that those names only should be counted as to which the addresses of the parties signing were given. This Order has been rigorously followed, though it has not hitherto answered all our expectations in correcting these irregularities. Then, again, the House has not un-frequently vindicated its privileges, on the Report of the Committee as to these tainted Petitions, by discharging the Order for their lying on the Table, while in more serious cases the offenders have been visited by severe penal treatment. Such an instance occurred in the first year of my Office as Chairman of the Committee, now nearly 20 years ago. I refer to the well-known Azim Jah Petition, where a deliberate system of fraud and forgery was proved, parties having been hired to get up Petitions by a payment of so much per sheet, and where, after full investigation, the offenders were committed to Newgate for the remainder of the Session. Certainly, if the ancient Constitutional right of Petition is not to fall into contempt, some further safeguards are required to suppress these practices. This would necessitate a revision of the Standing Orders. Looking to the period of the Session, the state of Public Business, and to the fact that the pressure of Petitions is over for the present, we think that further action had better be deferred till next Session. My hon. Friend has, however, done good service by calling attention to the subject; and we will take care, meanwhile, that full publicity is given to the Rules and Standing Orders of the House with respect to Petitions, so that all Petition-mongers may be warned as to the risks to which they expose themselves when they attempt in any way to contravene them.