HC Deb 03 December 1813 vol 27 cc238-41

On Mr. H. Addington's moving the committal of this Bill,

The Attorney General

expressed his wish to state to the House his ideas on a subject which had created a great diversity of opinion. He then adverted to the circumstances of the times in which that law was passed, and to the peculiar situation of the districts which had rendered that law necessary. If, by the salutary terror it had created, order had been re-established, they certainly had obtained an invaluable blessing at a comparatively trifling inconvenience. The present state of Europe, too, added to the operation of that law, had so contributed to restore order and perfect tranquillity, that should the Bill be now for the first time introduced, no man could think it necessary. But where a law, after effecting so much good, was attended with no inconvenience to any one, and held only terror to the guilty, it was certainly a harmless experiment to continue it for some time longer; always recollecting, that what had once come to pass might happen again. But as some hon. and learned gentlemen, and especially an hon. and learned friend of his, sir S. Romilly, whose suggestions were always entitled to the greatest deference, had expressed great objection to the offence of frame-breaking being made a capital felony, he intended to propose to the committee to enact a less severe punishment, and, at the same time, to make the Act permanent on the Statute-book, for the preservation of manufacturing property. The Act to which his hon. and learned friend had principally alluded, and which he wished to substitute for the present Bill, was an Act of the 28th of his present Majesty, by which the breaking up of manufacturing frames was punishable by no less than seven, nor more than fourteen years transportation. His intention, in the present instance was, to make the offence punishable by transportation for life. His principal reason was, that from the best sources of information he had been able to command, he had learnt that convicts for life were much more tractable, and made much better members of society, than those transported for a term of years: the first expecting no alleviation from a fate which was to last for life, but in their good conduct, by which they were soon admitted as settlers in the colony; whereas the others, always impatient under a restraint which they considered as temporary, sighed only in the bitterness and exasperation of disappointment, for the moment which was to bring them back to the scene of their former wickedness. He also wished, that, in mitigated cases, the judges might be authorised to recommend the culprit to a less punishment; or, in fact, if it was preferred, he had no objection to leave the period of transportation to the discretion of the judge. Another clause of the former Act which he would propose to repeal was, that which made it incumbent on persons injured to prosecute, under the penalties of a misdemeanor. But this was intended at the time to protect prosecutors from private revenge, by seeming to compel them to come forward. He did not think that the state of the country re- quired such a strong measure; and he would leave the prosecutor, in this particular case, in the same situation in which he stood by law for every other offence.

Sir S. Romilly

thought there was some objection against proceeding in the way recommended by the right hon. gentleman (the Attorney General). It was proposed to continue a law which had been originally introduced as a mere temporary measure, and to keep the terror of that law still in existence, though no occasion for such terror existed. The nature of the original measure would be entirely altered by thus making it permanent. In his opinion, it would be much better to drop the Bill altogether, and bring in a new one. The present Bill had reference merely to stocking and lace-frames. The machinery used in cloth and other manufactures were not at all protected by it; and yet there was no reason why they should not be protected as well as the others—they came under the very same principle. It was a very momentous question, that should not be decided in so hasty a way. With respect to what the right hon. gentleman (the Attorney General) had said on the subject of Botany Bay, there was an important difference of opinion upon that point. The opinion of a gentleman who had been many years governor of Botany Bay was quite contrary. The opinion of that gentleman was, that the persons transported for life were the most desperate and the most incorrigible of the whole colony. They were the very worst there; and the reason he assigned was, because they considered their case desperate; and for that reason they had laid aside all thought of amendment, and corrupted the rest of the prisoners. The report of the committee which had sat upon this subject should be taken into mature consideration. The number of persons likely to suffer under this Bill was extremely small. There seemed to be no necessity for the Bill, but certainly none for making that permanent which was originally temporary, and changing entirely the nature of the punishment. When it was stated the other day in the House, that the Bill might possibly have such an operation, as to subject to death an apprentice for injuring the frames of his master, a worthy alderman said it was monstrous and incredible that such a Bill could have passed the House. Yet the Bill did pass the House, and that worthy alderman himself voted for it. It would be easy to alter the words of the Act in such a manner as not to comprehend cases like that of the apprentice. Every thing said by the right hon. gentleman went upon general principles, and yet the Bill was to be confined to a particular Act. The inconvenience in bringing in another Bill would be, that some delay might arise; during that delay, however, the Bill before in existence would be sufficient for the protection of frames.

The motion was agreed to, and the House having resolved into the committee,

Mr. Homer

said, that he should wait to see how this Bill came out of the committee before he made any further observation upon it.

Mr. Eden

stated, from his experience in the committee respecting transportation to Botany Bay, that evidence appeared directly contradictory to the statement of the learned gentlemen, respecting the comparative conduct of the several classes of transports. According to that evidence, indeed, the persons transported for limited periods were very often reformed while those transported for life generally continued depraved and desperate. The hon. gentleman concluded, with expressing a wish that government would attend to the suggestion of the committee alluded to, with respect to the improvement of the civil and criminal courts.

The Attorney General

said, that the subject last referred to by the hon. gentleman, was under the consideration of government; and that papers were before him (Mr. G.) respecting those courts, which would have been decided upon before now, if he had not wanted that assistance which a recent appointment had happily afforded him [alluding, we suppose, to Mr. Serjeant Shepherd's appointment as Solicitor General].

Mr. J. Smith

expressed his satisfaction with the change which was proposed to be made in the measure under consideration; and he had no doubt that in consequence of that change it would prove more effectual for its object than the measure to which it was to succeed.

The Attorney General's proposition was agreed to, the House resumed, the report was received, and ordered to be farther considered on Monday next.