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Section II.—Pbivileges And Obder Of Pboceedings.
The composition of the two Houses of Parliament, as settled during the present reign, the current idea and actual mechanism of the representative system, and the general modes in which, both in and out of Parliament, the task of government is carried on with a certain degree of consistency and uniformity, have thus been investigated from a purely constitutional point of view. Not less relevant, however, to a true account of the structure of the Constitution is an inquiry into the more detailed processes by which the Houses of Parliament, and especially the House of Commons, have, by the united operation of long custom and recent artificial contrivances, acquired the capacity of securing order in the conduct of business, and of reconciling to the utmost the independence of individual members with the claims of the assembly in its corporate capacity on the one hand, and of the public outside the House on the other. To this subject belongs the consideration of what are called the ' privileges' of members or of the House, and the 'standing orders' and resolutions made by the House for the regulation of its proceedings.
The later history of the House of Commons has exhibited a steady progress in the direction of maintaining, not only publicity in its proceedings, but the freest possible avenues for communication with the public outside the House. Prominent among these avenues are the facilities opened out during the last hundred years, and largely developed during the pre
sent reign, for approaching the House of Commons by petition. Whether Mr. Hallam's opinion is to be followed, that the great multiplication of petitions wholly unconnected with particular interests cannot be traced higher than those for the abolition of the Slave-trade in 1807,1 or Sir T. Erskine May's opinion is to be preferred, that the modern system of petitioning was first called into activity in 1779 by the organisation created to promote measures of economical and parliamentary reform, which, commencing among the freeholders of
1 See Mr. Hallam's account of what is known as the Kentish petition, in 1701, Constitutional History, chap. xvi. Mr. Hallam cites in a note a paper in reference to this petition entitled 'Vindication of the Rights of the Commons,' written either by Harley or 8ir Humphrey Mackworth. After quoting the Statute of Chas. II. against tumults on pretence of presenting petitions, the writer of the paper says : ' By this statute it may be observed, that not only
* the number of persons is restrained, but the occasion also for
• which they may petition; which is for the alteration of matters 'established in Church or State, for want whereof some incon'venience may arise to that county from which the petition shall 'be. For it is plain by the express words and meaning of that 'Statute that the grievance or matter of the petition must arise 'in the same county as the petition itself. They may indeed 'petition the King for a parliament to redress their grievances; 'and they may petition that parliament to make one law that is 'advantageous, and repeal another that is prejudicial to the trade 'or interest of that county; but they have no power by this Sta'tute, nor by the Constitution of the English Government, to di'rect the parliament in the general proceedings concerning the 'whole kingdom; for the law declares that a general consultation 'of all the wise representatives of parliament is more for the safety 'of England than the hasty advice of a number of petitioners of a 'private county, of a grand jury, or of a few justices of the peace, 'who seldom have a true state of the case represented to them.' Mr. Hallam mentions the Septennial Bill of 1717, against which several petitions were presented from corporate towns, as affording the earliest instance of any merely political petition.
Yorkshire, extended to many of the most important counties and cities in the kingdom,1 there is no doubt that the right has now become firmly established to petition either House of Parliament in language 're'spectful and temperate, and free from disrespect to the 'Queen, or offensive imputations upon the character or 'conduct of Parliament or the Courts of Justice, or 'other tribunal or constituted authority.'s
Petitions to the Lords may give occasion to debate, and members who present petitions constantly avail themselves of this privilege by expressing their acquiescence in, or disapproval of, the prayer of the petition. It was not till 1839, when it was found that the debating of petitions threatened to become the sole business of the House of Commons, that that House took the step of prohibiting all debate upon the presentation of petitions. This prohibition was embodied, in 1842, in standing orders dealing with the whole subject of the presentation of petitions. By these orders, the Speaker is required 'not to allow any debate, 'or any member to speak upon or in relation to' a petition, except' in the case of such petition complain'ing of some present personal grievance, for which 'there may be an urgent necessity for providing an 'immediate remedy.' As a specimen of the spirit in which this rule has been interpreted, it was decided on June 14, 1844, that a petition complaining of letters having been detained and opened at a post-office, and praying for inquiry, was not of that urgency that entitled it to immediate discussion; while a similar
1 May's CoattitvMotial History, vol. ii. p. 63.
Publication of Proceedings. 77
petition presented on June 24 in the same year, complaining that' letters are secretly detained and opened,' whereby a 'present personal grievance' was alleged, was permitted to open a debate.
The next, and perhaps in the circumstances of modern society the more important, avenue to communication between the Houses of Parliament and the country is secured by the effect of the publication of the proceedings of the two Houses, and of the general permission accorded to strangers, including reporters for the public press, to be present at the debates. The great contest between the claims to secresy asserted by the House of Commons on the one side, and the claims to publicity asserted by the public on the other, has been waged within the limits of the present reign. The first stage of the controversy, commencing with the case of Stockdale versus Hansard, marked what the House has a right to publish; the second stage, denoted by the resolution of 1837, marks what the House has a right to keep secret.
The question at issue in the case of Stockdale versus Hansard1 was whether the House of Commons is entitled to print and publish documents which are laid before the House, and thereupon become part of its proceedings, in spite of the fact that they contain defamatory matter, and would be held libellous in a Court of Law. An action had been brought against Messrs.- Hansard, printers to the House of Commons, for printing and publishing, in accordance with an order of the House, a book described as 'Reports of the Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain,' in which
1 Adolphu-s and Elite's Reports, 1. Broom's Constitutional Law, 870.
reports a book of the plaintiffs, found among the prisoners in Newgate, was mentioned as being of a 'most disgusting nature, and the plates indecent and 'obscene in the extreme.' The report complained of had been made, on the 2nd of July, 1836, by a committee of the Court of Aldermen, in consequence of the report of the Inspectors of Prisons in reference to the gaol at Newgate, and had been afterwards laid before the House of Commons, and ordered to be printed by the House. On a later day, the 25th of July, the House of Commons ordered to be printed a copy of a further communication from the Inspectors of Prisons, made in reference to their previous report. On the 18th of March in the following year, the House of Commons, in compliance with the recommendation of a Select Committee, directed that parliamentary papers and reports printed by order of the House should be sold to the public at certain specified rates. On an action being brought by Mr. Stockdale, the Lord Chief Justice Denman, who tried the case, took occasion to say that'the fact of the House of Commons having 'directed Messrs. Hansard to publish all their par* liamentary reports is no justification for them, or for 'any bookseller who publishes a parliamentary report 'containing a libel against any man.' In answer to this, the House agreed to a resolution on May 31, 1837, that * the power of publishing such of its reports, 'votes, and proceedings as it shall deem necessary, or 'conducive to the public interests, is an essential inci'dent to the constitutional functions of Parliament, 'more especially of this House as the representative 'portion of it.' And further, that'for any person to 'institute a suit in order to call its privileges in ques