HL Deb 18 May 1886 vol 305 cc1273-7

in rising to move— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the validity of all petitions presented to this House for or against the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors on Sunday (Durham) Bill, and of the signatures attached thereto, with a view to ascertaining how far such signatures are or are not genuine. said, he had placed the Notice on the Paper believing that he was acting in accordance with what was the wish of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack (Lord Herschell). It would be in the recollection of noble Lords that the noble and learned Lord (Lord Bramwell) presented a Petition against the Bill—or rather it was so bulky that it was carried to the Table by an attendant—and in the course of the debate the Lord Chancellor, who spoke in favour of the Bill, referring to the Petition, observed that from his own experience in "another place"—experience, no doubt, gained from Petitions which he had presented—that Petitions were not always what they professed to be as regarded the signatures. The noble and learned Lord also expressly regretted that this Petition was presented so late to the House that there was no time to acknowledge it. Having heard that, and believing, as he did, that this Petition was as fairly got up as these things generally were, he gave Notice of this Motion. He knew nothing whatever about the Petition until it was presented to the House, when he saw the Gentleman who had charge of it, and he assured him that it was as fairly got up as those on the other side. He should mention that the Petition was promoted by the Country Brewers' Association, and he had since received a letter on the subject in which it was stated that the canvassers employed by the brewers had strict orders only to allow banâ fide signatures to be attached, and each canvasser was made responsible for the signatures in his own district, and it was added that the Petition would bear comparison with the Petitions on the other side. Upon looking into the matter to his surprise he found that there was no provision whatever for the examination of Petitions, while the officers of the House, when he mentioned the matter, were perfectly horrified at the idea of having to go through 60,000 or more signatures. It was thought that there should be a standing Committee of their Lordships' House for the examination of Petitions, and in 1868 one was appointed; but only one Report was presented, and then their Lordships thought that it was unnecessary to follow up the system. At the present moment, unless some officer of the House kindly undertook to look over the Petition, there was no other authority to do so. He believed that one of the officers had glanced through this one, and he said it appeared to be very fairly got up. He should have been perfectly content to let the matter drop at that; but he thought that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack would agree with him that the subject should not remain there, and that they ought to go into both sides. He should be quite willing that the Petitions should be referred to some expert who should be asked to report to the House upon them. He had several objections to the Bill, which he should state at the proper time, and he looked upon the measure itself as unwise and unnecessary. If one man desired to have a glass of beer on Sunday and another man was willing to sell it to him, why should they make this an offence? It was evident that there was a very strong feeling against the Bill in the City of Durham; because, as he learnt from the papers that morning, a mass meeting of the inhabitants was held in the market-place yesterday to protest against the Bill, and it was denounced as a gross interference with the liberty of individuals, and also as piecemeal and class legislation. The meeting appeared to have numbered some thousands of persons, and the few teetotallers who made their appearance were hustled, and but for the protection of the police would have been roughly handled. Eventually they had to take refuge in the Town Hall. It was evident, therefore, that this was a question upon which some very strong feeling was entertained on both sides; and that consideration ought to weigh with their Lordships to induce them to accept his Motion.

Moved, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the validity of all petitions presented to this House for or against the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors on Sunday (Durham) Bill, and of the signatures attached thereto, with a view to ascertaining how far such signatures are or are not genuine."—(The Earl of Wemyss.)


said, it might be in the recollection of the House that in the course of the few words which he spoke on the second reading of this Bill, after a Petition had been somewhat dramatically presented by the noble and learned Lord who moved the rejection of the Bill (Lord Bramwell), he (the Lord Chancellor) suggested that it was possible to overestimate the value of Petitions, because one was not certain as to the authenticity of the signatures. That Petition, having been presented so late, was somewhat calculated to increase one's suspicions. But his observations with regard to it were a chance shot, not based on any information. Since then he had received several other Petitions relating to that Petition, among them one from Edward E. Close, of 3, Paradise Place, Stockton-on-Tees, stating that he was a Good Templar and strongly in favour of the Durham Sunday Closing Bill; that he was asked to sign a Petition in favour of that Bill, and signed a Petition which he was told was in favour of that Bill; but that he learnt soon afterwards that the Petition was against the Bill, and praying that, since his signature had been obtained by fraud, it might be removed from the Petition. That was a sample of several Petitions that he had received. So as to see whether there was any foundation for these assertions, he asked one of his officials to look through the signatures and see whether he could discover the signature of Mr. Close, and in this the official had been successful, and there could be no doubt about the matter, as the signatures in both cases were similar. In the examination of the Petition it appeared that there were in one place some 40 or 50 signatures obviously signed in the same handwriting and with the same pen and ink; and as it was found that the residences of these persons were in some cases 10 miles apart it was most improbable that they were all present when their names were signed and authorized such signatures. It therefore seemed that there was some foundation for his doubts as to the 60,000 signatures being those of 60,000 persons opposed to the Bill. How many fell within that category it would be difficult to say. In many cases it appeared that the signatures not only of the parents, but of the youngest children who could hold a pen, had been taken. These facts, he thought, were sufficient to show that the Petition was not above suspicion; and, therefore, if the noble Earl moved for a Committee, it was obvious that with that other Petition before him it was impossible for him to suggest any argument against it.

Motion agreed to.

Committee appointed accordingly.

House adjourned at Seven o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Ten o'clock.