HC Deb 26 June 1811 vol 20 cc749-58
Mr. Sheridan

said, the case of Mr. St. John Mason, which he was now bringing before the House, was one of the most unexampled grievance which had ever occurred in the annals of oppression in this country. From his former experience it was his wish that the Irish government should agree to take Mr. Mason's case into their own hands; but from the absence of the right hon. gentleman, lately principal secretary, and now, he understood. Chancellor of the Exchequer, for Ireland, he was obliged to relinquish any hopes he might have formed on that subject. It was some time since Mr. Mason had suffered the oppression and injustice of which he complained; but it was proper to observe that Mr. Mason brought no charge against lord Hardwicke, under whose administration that oppression took place. What Mr. Mason complained of was, that on false information he had been arrested and kept in imprisonment for two years in one of the most loathsome and unclean prisons that the imagination of man could conceive. The horrors of the Irish prisons could not even be imagined by those who had not attended to the Report which had been made on the subject. Two-thirds of the gaols, especially of those in the vicinity of the metropolis, which were the principal gaols of the country, were declared to be a complete nuisance. It was astonishing that these abuses should have subsisted so long under the cognizance of so many members of parliament of that country ill this House. The power of the commissioners appointed to examine into the prison abuses in Ireland, was limited to that object alone. Some of those prisoners who, like Mr. Mason, were arrested and put into confinement without any-sufficient cause, during the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, thought themselves entitled to compensation for the injury which they had sustained from it: but Mr. Mason had uniformly persevered, with an anxiety which did him the highest honour, not to seek for compensation for the losses which he had sustained in being dragged from an honourable profession to the destruction of all his future prospects in life, but to have his character, which had suffered in the eyes of the world by a groundless imprisonment, again restored to him. He had uniformly persisted in challenging all inquiry into his conduct, and in calling upon government to shew any thing to the contrary of his statement. There was one paragraph of his Petition particularly deserving of notice, in which he stated, that he had applied to the Irish government again and again, soliciting an examination into his conduct, but that ail applications which he had hitherto made had been unavailing; and he therefore concluded that the Irish government were under an absolute inability to state any just cause for his imprisonment. Mr. Mason charged the government of the earl of Hardwicke with injustice and oppression towards him, and with an abuse of the power which had been granted to them for the protection of the people; and no answer had been made to him from which it might be possible to say whether the information received by the government was such as to justify them. If the information upon which a man was deprived of his liberty was not producible, then there was an end to every thing like redress. If they were to keep a man in custody for two years, and then to be allowed to say, It is true we have thought proper to imprison you for two years, we have been the ruin of you and your family; but we did it upon very sufficient information, which we will not produce—that was no answer to the Petitioner. What possible objection could government have to oppose to his claim? He wished government themselves to take up this examination, that they might see that they had proceeded on false information. Was it not the wish of lord Hardwicke himself that this examination should be entered upon? Here he stood charged with oppression by a person who defied him to produce any thing against him. Surely, then, it must be his wish to examine into the charges on which Mr. Mason was imprisoned, that if they should turn out unfounded, he might have the satisfaction of restoring Mr. Mason to his former character in society. Under such an impression, he had no idea of the government's controverting this Petition. There were two ways alone by which the Petitioner could obtain redress. One of these was by the appointment of a Committee up stairs; but at this late period of the session, as it would be necessary, in order to give the necessary information to that Committee, to move for the production of a number of papers in Ireland, it was impossible to anticipate any benefit from a Committee. What he had to propose was, to leave the matter in the hands of the Irish government themselves, in the same way as the examination of the prison abuses had been entrusted to them, which he would follow as a precedent; and he had no doubt that the consequence of such examination would be the restoration of character to Mr. Mason. He should there fore move," That an humble Address be presented to his royal highness the Prince Regent, that he will be graciously pleased to give directions to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to institute an inquiry into the case of John St. John Mason, esq. who, in a Petition presented to this House on the 17th of May last, hath directly charged the government of the earl of Hardwicke, when he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, with injustice and oppression towards him the said John St. John Mason."

Mr. Yorke

seconded the motion. As far as his noble relation and himself were concerned, they wished for investigation; but there were a few points in the speech of the right hon. gent., upon which he was desirous to make some observations. The right hon. gent. had said, that this was an instance of unexampled oppression; this unexampled oppression, however, he had brought forward two or three times before, but had always appointed a late day for the discussion, and after several disappointments, submitted it at length almost on the last day of the session. Surely if the case did amount to an unexampled oppression, the right hon. gent. would not have, delayed so long. But the right hon. gent. had said, what the petition itself did not state, that the gentleman on, whose behalf; he applied to the House, had been confined in a place described to be loathsome and abominable. The Report of the commissioners said the contrary. The right hon. gent. had also maintained, that if the grounds upon which any person was confined were not stated, individuals would be exposed to constant oppression: but the gentleman in question was confined under the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act and the argument, if good for any thing, would go against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, which was not the point at issue. The fact was, that from the Revolution down, the Crown had constantly exercised such a power, for the purpose of prevention not of punishment. He approved of the wish manifested by the petitioner to retrieve his character; it was honourable—and as it was proposed that government itself should give him the opportunity, he should feel himself guilty of an act of injustice were he to refuse. He hoped the intelligence he had received might prove to be false. Mr. Mason was taken up at the time when the detestable insurrection broke out, in 1803, and was released from prison before the Habeas Corpus suspension act expired. As far as his noble relation was concerned, he had no acquaintance with Mr. Mason, and therefore could not be suspected of any personal resentment towards him, or any wish to injure him as an individual.

Sir Evan Nepean

said that his right hon. friend who brought forward the motion was not acquainted with the time in which the petitioner was imprisoned. He (Sir Evan Nepean) was not in Ireland when Mr. Mason was taken into custody, but having arrived there shortly after, he had entered minutely into an investigation of the circumstances, and concluded from thence, that if government had not arrested him, it would have been guilty of misconduct. He had afterwards, by the order of lord Hardwicke, examined into the cases of all the state prisoners, and if there were any favourable circumstances in that of Mr. Mason he should have been glad to have released him. He had also examined the place of his confinement, and found it to be clean and comfortable; and, having gone at periods when he was not expected, found every thing conducted with an attention to the comforts of the prisoners.

Mr. W. Smith

wished to do away every unfavourable impression which the distance of time might make on the mind of the House. He had met the petitioner occasionally at the house of a common friend, and if any delay had taken place in bringing his case forward, he could take it on him to say, that it was not attributable to him, though other gentlemen might innocently enough be the cause of it, because he would take it upon him to "ay that Mr. Mason was incessantly endeavouring to forward his petition. If Mr. Mason had not good and sufficient grounds, he could not imagine he would be so anxious to procure an examination in public, in private, or in any other way. He acted like a man conscious of his own innocence. It might very well happen that, in a country like Ireland, where parties were in such a state of exasperation, if anonymous information were listened to, an innocent man might become the victim of party spleen and malice. The right hon. gent. (Mr. Yorke) had said, the argument extended to all Habeas Corpus suspension cases. He confessed he was more anxious for the general than the individual case. The public safety mightdemand occasional suspensions of the Habeas Corpus act; but what was that but saying that the public safety might require an injury to an individual, holding him up to all the members of society as a suspected person, and at last dismissing him without accusation? Where was the remedy for this oppression? This ought not to be allowed to take place in a free country. There ought to be some tribunal appointed where an injured individual might seek redress; and if government could shew no grounds for the deprivation of a man's liberty, then he ought to be declared innocent of those crimes for the suspicion of which he was arrested. In this way it would be possible to reconcile the justice due to the country at large with the justice due to any individual who might suffer for the sake of the country at large. He wished that a Committee up stairs had been appointed, as the government might very naturally wish to justify themselves.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said he was not aware of any difficulty under which Mr. Mason laboured, as to the possibility of bringing forward his case. He did not believe that any act of indemnity followed the year in which he was confined and therefore it was competent to him to bring his action. He was sure the House would agree that persons might be confined upon information which government could not disclose, without shutting itself out from such sources of information in future. If the question was brought before a jury, if it was evident that government was not actuated by any malicious feeling towards the individual, and that the Habeas Corpus act was not unnecessarily suspended, he was sure that no judge or jury Mould award damages, and therefore Mr. Mason might have acted properly in not appealing to the law. He thought his right hon. friend was right in recording the motion, especially as the House would be able to pursue the subject in a committee of its own, if it should not approve of the conduct of the investigators now appointed,

Sir F. Burdett

said, the doctrines laid down by the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to him of such a nature, that if they were true, we appeared to have no security for personal liberty in this country, more than what was possessed by men in other countries. If a gentleman was to be kept in solitary confinement for two years, and the grounds upon which government acted were not to be made known to him, it was impos- sible to define arbitrary power more completely. This was just such a doctrine as one would expect to hear from Buonaparté's minister of police, or whoever else should fill a situation corresponding to that of the right hon. gentleman over the was. The suspension of the Habeas Corpus act gave ministers no right to imprison persons whom they were not authorised otherwise to imprison: it only took away from the unfortunate individual the right of forcing on his trial within a reasonable time. With respect to the treatment which the Petitioner had received from Dr. Trevor, he would ask, what colour of pretence Dr. Trevor had to alter the treatment of the prisoners. There seemed to be lately a new mode of proceeding adopted with regard to gaols, persons interfering in the management of them who had no right so to interfere. They were told of the character of Br. Trevor, and they were also sure to be told of the character "of the unfortunate complainers. And he heard the other day of the improper conduct of a person under confinement in this country. What that impropriety was he could not conceive. If the prisoner had endeavoured to effect his escape, then the gaoler was bound in duty to take measures for securing him; but he was not at liberty to punish this individual at his own discretion. He should wish to see an action brought against government by the petitioner, and he thought that any jury would, give it in his favour. It was always the case with governments to possess an unwarrantable jealousy with regard to the subject; they wished always to make assurance double sure, rather than allow persons to escape from whom they apprehended danger.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

in explanation said, that he only justified bills of indemnity in cases where rebellion was known to exist, and where its existence was recognized by parliament, and not in the general way attributed to him by the hon. baronet.

Sir C. Burrell

said, that at the time of the suspension of that act in Ireland, a rebellion (lid exist; and it was necessary' that government should be entrusted with greater powers than usual.

Sir H. Montgomery

bore testimony to the mild government of lord Hardwicke, and expressed his confidence, that however this investigation might turn out, that noble lord would be found to deserve the think of the House.

Mr. Hutchinson

said, he should be sorry in voting for the present motion, if any one should suppose that he was any wise reflecting on the character of lord Hardwicke, of whose administration the leading features were lenity and conciliation. At the lime when Mr. Mason was arrested there was no rebellion in Ireland,' but merely an alarm and suspicion; and there was every appearance, from the anxiety which that gentleman displayed to have his case examined into, that he was innocent but in sending this investigation to the Irish government, there was no imputation thrown on the Irish government, because it was perfectly possible for the chief governor, however amiable, to have been misled, and for acts of the greatest outrage to have been committed under his auspices under the pretext of keeping down rebellion; and though he was not for charging the noble earl with countenancing these oppressive measures, yet he would say, that the greatest outrages which were committed in 1798, were not committed by the rebels, but by those who acted under the government. To his knowledge several innocent individuals had been ruined by the measures adopted towards them, and then let loose on the country without retribution or compensation.

Mr. Long

said, that such was the lenity of lord Hardwicke, that when Secretary, he had been desired by him to examiner in to the cases of the several prisoners, and to report them to him, with the anxious desire to find out any thing in their favour. He then mentioned the treatment of Mr. Mason, which, he was satisfied, would be found to have been perfectly proper.

Mr. Sheridan

denied that any charge was meant to be brought against lord Hardwicke. All that was alledged, was that lord Hardwicke had been deceived. But the chief point to which he was anxious to advert, was, the view which had been taken of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. Most erroneous notions were entertained even by lawyers on this subject. Many gentlemen appeared to think, that by the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, government might upon the slightest suspicion, seize any one, and confine him without a trial as long as it pleased. The suspension gave no such power. He maintained that it never had been so acted upon since the Revolution till Mr. Pitt's administration. The extent of the power was this, that government having committed a person upon such information, as would at any time have justified that commitment, might by virtue of the suspension, put off the trial; and this in critical times might be necessary, as a premature disclosure of the evidence might in certain circumstances be extremely prejudicial. But, under Mr. Pitt's administration they did not wait for this information, nor was it specified in their warrants that any such information had been obtained. They thought, that from the most trifling suspicion in their own breast they might imprison and keep the object of their suspicion as long as they pleased. They were in reality guilty of a serious crime, and the gaolers, too, were criminal who consented to receive prisoners under such warrants. And, what was the remedy for these proceedings? An act of indemnity! He knew it must come to that, for they themselves found that their conduct was illegal. If ministers were permitted to act thus, and to be indemnified for such conduct, there was no security for the liberty of the subject. Sham plots, or real plots, or plots of any description, would afford the minister a pretence for confining persons obnoxious to him. The indemnity to which he alluded passed under the administration of lord Sidmouth, and it was the only act of that administration which he had decidedly reprobated. As to Mr. Mason's having recourse to a jury, that was utterly impracticable. Mr. Mason had applied in all quarters for trial and redress, to every new lord lieutenant, to every new chief secretary, and being himself a lawyer, it would have been strange if he had overlooked a trial by jury, if that had been open to him. Mr. Mason, he had no doubt, would have been happy to have appealed to a jury of his countrymen; but, as he stated in his Petition, he could not get redress by the ordinary forms of law; and he was persuaded, that, on inquiry, it would be found that he could not have recourse to a jury. As to the conduct of Dr. Trevor, he contended, that after the documents which had been produced by him on a former occasion, and the affidavits of the most honourable persons, it was hardly possible to doubt but Dr. Trevor had been guilty of gross oppression. An inquiry was had in consequence of the statement which he had made to the House, and he would now read some passages from the Report of the commissioners.—He accordingly read some extracts, from which it appeared, that 13 persons had been confined in one cell, 18 feet by 12, and the reason alledged for this was, that the prisoners would by this means be more under the eye of the keeper. It had been stated that Kilmainham gaol was a very clean place, but the report was, that though it had once been a Very clean place, yet for five years past it had been filthy beyond description. He was sure that the chief Secretary for Ireland must now feel very happy that he had agreed to the examination into the state of the prisons, which he (Mr. S.) had formerly proposed. As Mr. Mason's case was at last to be investigated by the Irish government, he had only to express his hope that he would be fully heard in his own defence. Certain he was, that the language of Mr. Mason was not that of one conscious of guilt or afraid of trial.

—The motion was then agreed to.