HL Deb 19 September 1831 vol 7 cc106-11
The Duke of Devonshire

said, that he had to present to their Lordships a Petition, most numerously and respectfully signed from the town of Derby, praying for Parliamentary Reform. He ought, however, to state to their Lordships, that this was not a petition that had been recently prepared. It was, in fact, a petition which had been prepared and signed so long ago as the month of March last, but it had been transmitted to him only a few days since, and the petitioners were of opinion, that it could not be presented at a better time than when the measure of Parliamentary Reform was about to come under their Lordships' consideration. He would only add to this statement, that he spoke upon unquestionable authority, when he stated, that the ardour for Parliamentary Reform was by no means abated in Derby; and that, if a similar petition to the present were now to be offered for signature there, it would receive many more names than were attached to this petition.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, he was not acquainted with the town of Derby, nor was it his intention to interfere with anything the noble Duke had said as to the respectability of its in habitants, or their unanimity in favour of Parliamentary Reform; but he had received one or two letters from persons who, he understood, were entitled to credit, in which it was stated, as the noble Duke said, that the petition was signed in March last, and that it did not refer to the Bills now before the Legislature on the subject of Reform, but to that which had been produced in the last Parliament. One of the letters was signed by Mr. Thomas Euston, a surgeon, and it asserted, that, so far as Derby was concerned, the petition was fallacious, and that it was agreed to at a public meeting held on the 14th of March last, and that the signatures were all attached to it in the course of the same month. The letter also pointed out, that, if the document were examined, the figure 3 would be found over the letter A, which was erased, in order to make it refer to the three Bills now before Parliament, instead of a Bill which was then before the House of Commons. Having been called on by those gentlemen to make this statement, he did so on their authority; at the same time, he thought that their Lordships must admit that the objection was well founded, and that the petition did not come in a proper manner before them.

The Duke of Devonshire

said, he had already admitted, that the petition was signed in March, but he was authorised to state, that the same feeling now unanimously existed in favour of Reform in the town of Derby.

The Duke of Cumberland

begged to observe, that as the petition was signed before the present Parliament was in existence, and as it evidently related to a measure which was before a former Parliament, it could not be received.

Lord Kenyon

, on the point of order, was of opinion, that as the noble Duke who presented the petition admitted that it was signed in the month of March last, and as it related to a bill which was then before another Parliament, it could not be now received consistently with the usual course of their Lordships' proceedings.

The Marquis of Londonderry moved that the petition be withdrawn.

Earl Grey

said, that the motion to withdraw the petition was irregular, for, if it were the sense of the House that it could not be received, the noble Duke who presented it would himself withdraw it. It would be as well, however, that the petition should be read, in order that the House should understand exactly what it prayed.

The Petition read, praying that the House would pass the three Bills which were before the other House of Parliament, when they came before their Lordships.

Earl Grey

said, he did not remember, in the course of his experience, any similar case. It was alleged, and indeed admitted by the noble Duke, that the petition was signed in March, yet there did not appear on the face of it any evidence of time. It prayed the House to pass certain Bills, and so far it was plain and regular; but if the fact was, that it was signed during the sitting of another Parliament, and in reality addressed to another measure than that now under consideration in another place, he thought that there must be some difficulty in receiving it. As it was a new case, he thought the better course would be, to adjourn the discussion upon the reception of the petition until an opportunity was given for inquiring if any similar case had existed, and in what way it was treated by the House.

Lord Wharncliffe

said, that it was quite evident that the petition could not be received. The petition was signed in March last, and it related to three Bills which were then not really in existence. He submitted, therefore, to his noble friend, that the best course was at once to withdraw the petition; and no injury would be committed on those from whom it came, as, if the feeling still existed in Derby, they would have no difficulty in getting up another petition to the same effect.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, he had examined the petition, and in justice to the individuals who had written to him, he must declare, that there had been clearly an alteration made from "a Bill," to "three Bills," which last were the words that now appeared in it.

The Earl of Eldon

said, that with regard to the reception of the petition there could be but one opinion. He thought that the House ought to be much more careful than it was in investigating the numerous petitions that were daily laid before it. One, for instance, was signed by a chairman on behalf of a meeting, though that meeting might be little more than nominal; and of others the contents were such as did not entitle them to be received. If this petition related to another Reform Bill than that now before the other House, and if it referred to a Parliament which was not in existence when it was signed, it was impossible that it could be received. He therefore agreed with the noble Lord near him, that the only course was to withdraw the petition, and the parties would have another opportunity of sending forward their wishes in a more regular manner. He thought that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack should take care that no petition was received by the House which did not maintain the legitimate authority of the House.

The Lord Chancellor

sincerely wished, that he or any other person in that House had the power of doing that which his noble and learned friend seemed to think it the duty of the Lord Chancellor to do. He had always understood that between the Speaker of that House, and the Speaker of the other House of Parliament, there was this marked difference—namely, that the Speaker of this House had no more power or authority than any other of their Lordships. He might be wrong, but this was his understanding of the matter. He could not help observing, that never since the moment in which he first entered Parliament, had he been so much astonished as he had been at the utter absence of every thing like order and regularity in the discussions which took place among their Lordships. He did not impute this as a matter of blame to any of their Lordships individually. He laid the whole blame upon the faulty construction of their Lordships' Speaker. Their Lordships had agreed to very excellent Standing Orders—Standing Orders calculated to meet all irregularities and infringements of forms; but then, unfortunately, it was not the province of any particular person to enforce those orders. Any or all of their Lordships were at liberty, no doubt, to enforce these Standing Orders if they pleased; but then, as their Lordships well knew, there was a vulgar proverb, not less true than trite—namely, that what was every body's business was nobody's business; and the consequence of this proverb holding good with respect to their Lordships, as well as with respect to more humble persons, was, that nobody enforced their Lordships' Standing Orders, and that more irregularity prevailed in the debates of their Lordships, than in the discussions of any other public assembly which he had ever heard of. One noble Lord would get up and deliver himself in speeches, at least ten times, without there being any question before the House; and another noble Lord would rise, and seeming to think that he remedied the defect of there being no question before their Lordships, by putting some half-dozen questions to his noble friend (Earl Grey) opposite; another made as many speeches as he put questions, and was followed by other noble Lords in the same course—all this occurring in spite of there being, in point of fact and form, and in the proper sense of the word, no question at all before the House. Now he should heartily rejoice, if the Speaker of that House had the power of suggesting, for that was all the power he desired the Lord Chancellor to have, that such a course was not in conformity with the rules by which their Lordships had agreed that the proceedings of that House should be regulated. He, however, had no objection to take upon himself the labour of ascertaining that in the petitions presented to the House, there was nothing contrary to the orders and privileges of their Lordships; but then he must do this merely as an individual Peer, for as Lord Chancellor he had no other power than any of the rest of their Lordships had. In the other House of Parliament this was not done, neither was it necessary that it should be done; for although the Speaker of that House, unlike their Lordships' Speaker, had very extensive powers, yet the responsibility, with regard to the contents of petitions presented to that House, rested with each Member who presented a petition, and whose duty it was to see that the petition was a proper one—that was to say, proper as to the form and wording of it, for it was not, of course, expected that a Member should be answerable for the sentiments contained in a petition. He thought that if noble Lords would be good enough to pay the same attention to the petitions put into their hands, the result would be found very convenient to the House, and would obviate, so far as petitions were concerned, the objection that the Speaker of the House had no power to make that interference which his noble and learned friend (the Earl of Eldon) on the cross-bench was disposed to think that the Lord Chancellor had the power to make. He repeated that he had always understood that the Lord Chancellor had no such power.

The Earl of Eldon

admitted, that the Lord Chancellor had no more power than any other individual Peer, but it had been generally taken for granted, in a debate which he well recollected, that the Lord Chancellor, as a Peer, was to be expected to have some knowledge of the nature of the petitions presented.

The Earl of Carnarvon

had understood the noble Duke (of Devonshire) to admit that the petition was signed in March, and addressed to the late Parliament. If he were right in this understanding, it would be a discourtesy to the noble Duke to adjourn the discussion for the purpose of ascertaining the correctness of facts which the noble Duke had admitted to be true.

The Duke of Devonshire

said, that with their Lordships' permission he would withdraw this petition, and he should withdraw it the more willingly, because he had no doubt that he should shortly have to present to their Lordships another, more strongly expressive of the anxiety of the people of Derby for the success of the measure of Reform.

Petition withdrawn.

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