HL Deb 17 July 1862 vol 168 cc404-13

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


* rose to move the second reading of a Bill which had come up from the other House of Parliament to repeal the Act of 1819, which for the first time required securities from publishers and printers. Last year the same Bill came up from the House of Commons with the same general concurrence, which this year it had engaged, but too late to be considered by their Lordships. It was not to be confounded with a Bill which had come up in 1860, and which the House declined to read a second time, since that Bill proposed extensively to alter an Act of 1799 relating to the press, with which the present Bill in no way interfered; confined as it was to two Acts of Parliament by one of which in 1819 securities had been imposed—by the other in 1830 they had been in some degree extended. The two Acts were 60 Geo. III., c. 9, and 1 Will., IV., c. 73. Of this latter Act the first clause was not to be repealed, because it took away penalties which it was not intended to revive at present. It would therefore be seen, that as no Vote had been taken on the present Bill, their Lordships were at perfect liberty to decide upon its merits.

But if the House of Lords was not in any way committed on it, so much could not he said of the noble and learned Lord over the way (Lord Chelmsford), who had given notice to oppose it. A very few words would show that he was thoroughly engaged to its support. The principle of the present Bill was to repeal the Acts of Parliament which required securities of publishers and printers, and to preserve the Acts of Parliament which insisted on the registration of newspapers at Somerset House. And this, as he would now explain, was the principle repeatedly advanced and formally assented to by the late Government, in which the noble and learned Lord held a most conspicuous office. It was important to consider with exactness the course which the late Government had taken on this subject. On the 17th February, 1859, leave was moved to bring in a Bill prepared by Mr. Ayrton, Mr. Milner Gibson, and Mr. Collins, which proposed to repeal almost the whole of eight statutes bearing upon newspapers and printers, including the Act of 1819 and the Act of 1830. The Solicitor General of the late Government (Sir Hugh Cairns) admitted that many of the statutes proposed to be repealed were obsolete; that what was not enforced ought not to remain upon the statute-book—discussed the Bill in terms of general encouragement, with reserve as to the extent to which it ought to go. On March the 2nd, the Attorney General of the late Government declared that he had no objection to the second reading of the Bill. On March the 21st, in Committee, the Solicitor General, in terms much more precise, consented to the repeal of the first three Acts enumerated, including the Act of 1819—which was the main topic of debate tonight—but desired to keep two others he alluded to, by which the registration of newspapers was enforced. On the 7th April, another Member of the late Government (Mr. Sotheron Estcourt), speaking in their name, advised Mr. Ayrton to withdraw his Bill in prospect of the general election, and himself undertook in the next Session to offer legislation in a spirit not different from his own. To give precision to a pledge, which, although liberal, was vague, the Solicitor General proceeded to remark that, in the opinion of all parties, statutes which re- quired securities ought to be repealed (as the Bill now before the House proposes to repeal them), and that those which required the printer's name to be attached to what he prints should be retained. The point to be considered, the Solicitor General went on to say, was, whether the law which required newspapers to be registered should or should not be adhered to. The legal organ of the late Government had not made his mind up even to that degree of rigour, while he renounced securities, in the name not only of his friends and of himself, but of all parties. Since then, the House of Commons, instructed by the late Government—for such language was instruction—sanctioned Bills to abrogate securities and keep up registration. And these are the securities which the noble and learned Lord, who then held the Great Seal, would now resist the abrogation of. The noble and learned Lord is too great a constitutional authority to maintain that the Lord Chancellor is not responsible for the language of the Attorney and Solicitor General speaking as the legal organs of the Government, or that their words are not to be considered as his own. It would ill become his character for vigilance to avow that a subject, of which he is at present nervously alive to the importance, at that time escaped him altogether. And he is too high-minded to have knowingly remained a leading Member of the Government which resolved to get rid of securities, while he himself was bent upon retaining them. Unless his opinions had undergone a revolution since 1859, he is bound to support the Bill before your Lordships.

But although the Members of the late Government, and more particularly the noble and learned Lord, are thus engaged to its support, the House itself is not compelled by their opinion, and I will therefore briefly go into the merits of the question. The Act of 1819, which the House of Commons asks us to repeal, was among the celebrated Six Acts which in that year justly or unjustly brought odium on the Government of Lord Liverpool and of Lord Castlereagh. Most of them have expired, and only one or two remain on the statute-book. Their avowed object was, by extraordinary restraints, to meet extraordinary dangers. They were carried in November and December, 1819, and arose out of an unhappy conflict in the preceding August between the Yeomanry and a large crowd at Manchester, assembled to petition for reform. In Parliament, the Opposition of that time, including Sir James Mackintosh, Mr. Brougham, Lord Erskine, and other distinguished men, appeared to waste their powers in resisting and denouncing them. By these authorities, the whole system comprised in the Six Acts was viewed as a tyrannical encroachment on the established freedom of the country, while the part we have before us, and which imposed securities on printers, was marked for separate attack and for particular and pointed reprobation. It was argued to be wholly new for a class who satisfied a public want to be called upon to give securities by others and themselves against some possible offence which had not yet arisen. It was urged, that printers ought not to be exposed to disadvantages by which no other class of tradesmen were affected. The Bill created also, as they reasoned, an invidious distinction between wealth and poverty. No man who had not ample means and opulent connections would now be able freely to deliver his opinions to the country. By these considerations the Bill was strongly reprimanded. At the same time, the Government who urged it were not without an answer. The time was fraught with agitation and uneasiness. It was deemed necessary, without any purpose of foreign policy or national defence, to increase the standing army by 10,000 men. Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the House of Commons, dwelling on the moment, likened it to that of 1745, when armies were supposed to be advancing upon London. In point of fact, at that time, neither the Crown, the Government, nor Parliament stood well in popular opinion. Sedition undoubtedly prevailed; discontent was its origin; the press was its exponent; and the Act of 1819 was therefore calculated, if not to check its source, to impose a limit on its utterance. The pleas which were opened to the Government of that day are now notoriously wanting. The preamble of the Act has long outlived the facts which it refers to as occasioning it. Even the severe distress which now prevails among the operatives has led to no political excitement, or disturbance, or complaint. Seditious publications are unknown, or scarcely ever heard of. The picture of society is as remote as possible from that which forced itself on the alarmed and unpopular Executive of 1819. Whatever case Lord Liverpool and Lord Castlereagh were able to adduce for the Six Acts, taken as a whole, and this one in particular, is buried in their graves, and has not descended to their successors.

But even admitting that exactly the same arguments and exactly the same facts which bore on 1819 were now available, a new consideration opens. If the law can be defended, it can not be enforced. In 1855 a Bill was carried to repeal all stamp duties on newspapers. In this way a great part of the Act of 1819 relative to stamps vanished altogether. So long as the stamps remained, a Board was ready to watch newspapers, to protect the revenue, and to see that the securities required by law were given. Stamps having passed away, there is no department of the State whose business it is, or to whom it naturally falls, to ascertain whether the recognizances have been entered into. The upshot is that the law can only be occasionally acted on. And this is its injustice. A publisher has not sufficient motive to observe, and yet encounters risk by disregarding it. The editor of an Irish Journal, the Dundalk Express, recently addressed me in a letter to explain that he had started a small paper about three year ago; that he was prosecuted by the Crown for not having entered into the Libel Bond; that to save himself from imprisonment he was forced to stop his publication, and to reduce his family to want; that after some time he re-established it, but at the cost of paying twenty per cent for the money he required, and giving one-fifth of the profits to the person who became his surety. In his own judgment he was ruined by being called on to provide against an offence for which, if it did arise, the law could put him into prison. Such cases would not occur if the Act of 1819 was enforced upon the one hand, or repealed upon the other. Publishers would make a point of finding the securities, or would not incur sudden and unexpected blows by venturing without them. At this moment there exists in London a weekly journal called The Index, of which the object is to vindicate the Southern cause during the war which rages on the other side of the Atlantic. Its pages have been thought to give a more lively and dramatic view of that extraordinary contest than any other source of printed information. It has evidently been set up by Southern gentlemen without a view to profit. Considering how seldom the Act of 1819 is enforced, they might well have omitted to enter into the recognizances. In such a case, a Government who wished to act a servile part towards the Minister from Washington, might bring the terrors of the law upon them. I have thus brought before your Lordships the class of hardships which the Act of 1819 may from time to time inflict, and the class of journals against which it may be mischievously pointed.

But even if proprietors and publishers were very seldom injured by it, the State would still be a loser by its action. Registration of newspapers, which the late Government were bent upon preserving, and which the House of Commons has preserved, becomes defeated by securities. The proprietors avoid the registration, because, unless they did, they would be compelled to find the sureties. There are hundreds of journals unregistered at present, all of which might register if securities were abrogated. To comply with the law upon securities, about eighteen persons have to take part in the transaction. No wonder, therefore, that the publishers avoid it when there is little hazard of detection. But in avoiding it, they must avoid the registration also. By keeping both weapons on the statute-book both of them are neutralized.

It ought to be remembered, that when, in 1799, Mr. Pitt introduced a measure to restrain the press in a period of revolutionary ferment, he never ventured to exact securities from printers. In his speech of April the 19th in that year, he laid down with accuracy the restrictions which appeared to him to be desirable. The name of the printer was to be attached to publications. There was to be a register of printers and of presses kept by private persons; and last of all, a register of types and of persons to whom they were sold. Mr. Pitt at that time was unopposed, and could carry any measure which he offered. To exact securities of publishers had no place in his scheme. And yet so vulgar an expedient was hardly beyond the reach of his fertile and capacious mind when brought to bear on every detail of the subject. The more natural presumption is, that he considered and rejected it. Do our times demand restraints which Mr. Pitt in 1799 refused to fasten on his country?

If, therefore, the noble and learned Lord persists in his intention, these are the positions which he is bound to overthrow: that the whole system of the Six Acts was far from commanding public approbation at the time it was brought forward; that the Act by which securities were required from publishers and printers was most of all resented; that the circumstances which alone suggested or excused it have no place at present; that the abolition of the stamp duties takes away the means of enforcing the law with regularity; that registration, which the late Government alone desired to preserve, suffers from the attempt to go on with securities; and last of all, that by his Act of 1799 Mr. Pitt at once excluded and condemned them.

It may, indeed, be true that by repealing the Act of 1819 we shall put an end to no extensive wrong, grant no considerable boon, and do little to be felt at all by the press or by the public. At the same time, to abrogate restrictions no longer called for can never be entirely unprofitable. It must tend to raise the character of Parliament. Since 1832 our policy has been to obliterate the traces of encroachment on settled rights, and to take away laws which were only passed because the country had not then the power to forbid them. To that policy we owe, at least in some degree, the remarkable tranquillity and matchless spirit of the people; and to that policy, by passing this Bill, your Lordships would make a safe, although, indeed, an unambitious contribution. The noble and learned Lord will find arrayed against him the authority not only of the celebrated man who opposed the Act of 1819 when it was started; not only of the House of Commons, which has twice unanimously voted its repeal; not only of Mr. Pitt, whose moderation has exposed it, but of his colleagues in the late Government who could only speak on such a point with his concurrence. But if he deems it right to be insensible to the engagements of the past, is it wise in him to overlook the voice and counsels of the future? In the ordinary course of things, those with whom he acts may by-and-by resume the offices they quitted. Does he imagine that a party which, not bound by previous declarations, transferred India from the Company to the Crown, proposed to take away the distinction of the town and county franchise, admitted the Jews to Parliament, will, when sitting upon this side of the House, venture to maintain the Act of 1819, after express and open pledges to abandon it? Should he not, therefore, pause before he allows those who feel interested in the Bill before you to go away with this expression on their lips and this conclusion in their judgment—that a moderate and limited concession which they could not gain from the justice, from the self-control, from the recorded words and plighted faith of Opposition, they will by-and-by command from the embarrassments of power? My Lords, I move the second reading of the Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.


thought their Lordships had some reason to complain of the manner in which they had been treated in regard to this and similar Bills. This measure—or a measnre very similar to this—had been sent up from the House of Commons every Session for three successive years. In the year 1860, at a very early period of the Session—namely, on the 7th February—a Bill to repeal the clauses of the Act of 1799 relating to printers, type founders, and the proprietors of printing presses, was brought up, and application was made to several noble Lords to take charge of it; but they all declined, and it lay on the table for five months utterly disregarded, waiting for some charitable hand to take it up. At length the noble Lord who had just spoken, pitying its destitute condition, consented to bring it before the House. He (Lord Chelmsford) proposed to the noble Lord to assent to the repeal of certain clauses which he believed were obsolete, and to retain those which he held to be still necessary; but the noble Lord would not agree to that arrangement; and the consequence was that he felt compelled to oppose the Bill, which was thrown out by thirty-six votes to ten. In the following year the Bill was brought up on the 30th of July, and the second reading fixed for the 2nd of August, though the Session terminated on the 6th of August. The noble Lord, however, on the advice of the noble Earl opposite (Earl Granville), withdrew the Bill for the Session; a noble Earl at that time said that the Bill was dead and gone. Gone it might be, but dead it was not, for here it was before them for the third time, and they must deal with it on its merits. His first objection was to the form of the Bill, which was of the most inconvenient description. It proposed in general terms to repeal the whole of two Acts of Parliament, with the exception of a single clause, without informing the House what those provisions were, and what would be the effect of re- pealing them. Nothing could be more inconvenient than to draw up Bills in such a form. The noble Lord said that by the repeal of the stamp duty upon newspapers various clauses of the 60 Geo. III. had become inapplicable. That was no doubt correct; but there were other clauses which would require very careful consideration before their Lordships could give their assent to the repeal of them. Several, he thought, ought to be retained for the security of the public. One clause of that Act required that every printer of a newspaper, before he began to print it, should enter into a bond with two sureties, conditioning for the payment of any fine which might be imposed on the printer for any blasphemous or seditious libel which he might publish. There was also another clause, empowering any judge or justice of the peace before whom any such person charged with publishing a libel might be brought, to require him to enter recognizances. The 1 Will. IV. not only increased the penalty upon the bond, but also extended the conditions, and made the sureties liable to pay the damages which any person might recover for any libel which the printer might publish. Why were these securities which had been so carefully provided for the protection of the public to be withdrawn? The noble Lord had not advanced any argument why they should be abolished, nor was there any statement of the reasons in the preamble of the Bill. The noble Lord said that the newspaper stamp duty being repealed, great encouragement was given to the publication of cheap newspapers, and that persons of slender means would engage in this business if this Bill were passed. He should have thought that the conclusion of the noble Lord would have been the very reverse of that which he had drawn from the premises he laid down. It was well known that a few years ago newspapers of a low character were published for the purpose of extortion, by the publication of libels, and therefore he should have thought it necessary to continue those Acts which gave security to injure parties for obtaining satisfaction. Besides, these Acts operated as some security also for the good behaviour of the publishers, who were not likely to induce persons to become security for them unless they were known to be of respectable character. Believing that there was no protection for the public unless these securities were retained, he should move that the Bill be read a second time that day three months.

Amendment moved, to leave out "now" and insert "this day three months."


said, he did not agree with the noble and learned Lord, and should be perfectly prepared to vote with his noble Friend on the ground taken by the Law Officers of the late Government—namely, that it was useless to maintain upon the statute book Acts which were practically obsolete, and which were never enforced. At the same time, the manner in which the Bill had been drawn was such that their Lordships were not likely to pass it in its present shape, and he would therefore suggest to his noble Friend that the Bill should be withdrawn, in order that it might be better adapted to effect the object which he had in view.


entered into some reply to the observations of Lord Chelmsford, although he was content to rely on the shelter which the late Government had given to the principle of the Bill. As his noble Friend the President of the Council, although prepared to vote with him (Lord Campbell), would not be supported by all his Colleagues in the House, he should ask leave to withdraw the Motion for the second reading.


could not agree to its withdrawal; the Bill must be negatived.

On Question, That "now" stand part of the Motion? Resolved in the Negative; and Bill to be read 2a on this day three months.