HC Deb 29 November 1813 vol 27 cc208-14

Upon the motion of Mr. H. Addington, that the Bill for continuing the Act for inflicting the punishment of death on all persons convicted of maliciously breaking such frames, or cutting any lace or stockings in such frames, be read a second time,

Mr. J. Smith

rose and expressed a wish, that as peace and tranquillity were now, and had been for a considerable time back, completely restored in the districts to which the Act referred to was originally intended to apply, the severe penalty prescribed by that Act should cease. He saw no objection to a Bill for extending to lace-frames the same provisions which, according to an old statute, applied to stocking-frames; because otherwise, should the Act under consideration be repealed or allowed to expire, the lace-frames would not enjoy the due protection of the law. But he had serious objections to the continuance of a law which he would take the liberty of saying was wholly ineffective; he knew from local observation, that the penalty of death had the effect of indisposing persons to prosecute for such offences as the Act had in view, and therefore, there had been no conviction under it. Much information had indeed reached him which fully satisfied his mind upon this subject. He would be the last man in the world to resist any measure calculated to prevent such outrages as disturbed certain parts of the country when this Act was originally enacted; but he was then, as well as at present, persuaded that the penalty prescribed was too severe. He was also persuaded, that the persons concerned in these outrages were, as they themselves had long felt, actuated by mere delusion; and from this circumstance, combined with the communication which he had with the right hon. mover, he was induced to think that there was no reason whatever to apprehend any recurrence of the outrages against which this Bill proposed to provide. Of course there was no necessity for its adoption. But even if such outrages should unhappily recur, he was decidedly of opinion, that an Act, imposing the penalty of transportation for seven years upon the delinquents, would be more effective in putting them down, than the Act which the hon. mover proposed to continue.

Mr. H. Addington

expressed his happiness in confirming the statement of the hon. gentleman, that tranquility was completely restored in the districts alluded to, and therefore he should be the last person to originate the measure under consideration. But finding the Act in existence, and aware of its influence in putting down an alarming disturbance, he thought it his duty to propose its continuance, as a matter of prudence and precaution, to guard against the possible recurrence of any such outrages and in the hope that it would operate in terrorem, to prevent crime. The right hon. gentleman added, that he intended only to move the continuance of the Act for one year from the 1st of March next.

Sir Samuel Romilly

said, that he could not think the House, disposed to accede to this measure upon such, grounds as were stated by the right hon. gentleman. In fact the right hon. gentleman had not offered any reason whatever to justify the adoption of his measure, but brought it forward apparently as a mere matter of course; and such, was the right hon. gentleman's line of proceeding upon a measure of no less, importance than the infliction of a capital punishment—than the increase of our already enormous mass of capital offences. The House, in considering this question, should bear in mind the circumstances under which the Act referred to was originally passed. A conspiracy prevailed in certain parts of the country—houses were broken open in the day-time, stocking and lace frames were destroyed; and to meet those evils this Act was adopted, by which that, which before was a simple felony, was, rendered a capital offence. The minister, (Mr. Perceval) however who supported it, with Secretary of State also (Mr. Ryder.) declaring that the peculiar circumstances of the crisis alone urged them to bring forward, such a measure, which they by no means proposed to render permanent, its continuance was limited to two years. But now that the disturbances which formed the argument in support of this Act, had so long ceased—now that tranquillity was completely restored—that the temporary evil which gave birth to the Act was removed—nay, now that tranquility was not only restored, but the very causes which were known to have occasioned the disturbances complained of were entirely done away—when the distresses of commerce and manufactures had totally disappeared—when such a state of things had arisen, as the most sanguine imagination could not have anticipated at the enactment of this extraordinary law, it was proposed to extend its duration without any plea whatever, either of existing or probable necessity. The very authors of this law could never have calculated, that by or before the 1st of March, 1814, the distress that gave rise to the outrages against which they legislated would so entirely disappear, that our old channels of commerce should be re-opened—that our manufactures should be restored, and our manufacturers in full employment—and under such, circumstances, where could be the occasion for continuing the law under consideration? He should be, glad to hear from any advocate for the motion, against what description of evil he thought it necessary to provide, by continuing this law beyond the 1st of March, 1814, or what sort of danger was to be apprehended from its discontinuance? If, then, no cause could be assigned, he could not conceive it possible that, the House would consent to continue the existence of a capital punishment merely as a measure of caution, against imagining; a 'possible' evil, as the right hon. mover had stated. It was admitted, that there had been no conviction under this Act; but it was foretold at the time of its enactment, that the severity of the punishment of death would serve to prevent prosecutions therefore the Act was not enforced. But, in fact, the whole of the evil referred to, its possible recurrence, might be fully provided against, as hon. friend behind him (Mr. Smith) suggested, by extending the Act which applied to stocking-frames to lace-frames also, with, however, a mitigated penalty in both cases. With respect to the statement of the right hon. mover, that although he would not originate the law under consideration, he thought it his duty to propose its continuance, because he found it upon the Statute-book: it appeared to him (sir S. R.) of a most extraordinary nature, as a general motive for legislation. But as to this particular Act, how was the House to view a proposition calculated to put to hazard the lives of men, merely because an act passed under totally different circumstances was still to be found on the Statute-book? If the right hon. gentleman felt so much regard for the value of the statute, be ought to have some respect for the opinion of its authors and according to that opinion, this statute ought to terminate in March 1814. But really, according to the kind of argument adduced by the right hon. mover, this statute might have unlimited duration. For although, he proposed its re-enactment for only, one year, the argument he used in support of the proposition, namely, the appearance of the Act on the Statute-book, and the propriety of providing against any 'possible' disturbance, might be urged again in the next year. The reasoning that was held good by the right hon. gentleman might be so deemed by those who followed him in office, and so on in succession.

Mr. B. Bathurst

observed upon the grounds alledged by the learned gentleman for the repeal of the law under consideration; namely, the state of the country, and the severity of the punishment prescribed by the law. As to the first ground, the question for the House to decide was, whether, from the short time that had elapsed since the disturbances had ceased against which the law was pointed, it would be prudent to repeal it; for himself, he could have no hesitation in deciding in the negative; and he felt that many circumstances might be adduced to justify that decision. Then, as to the second ground, it was asserted that the law was inefficient—that there had been no convictions under it, because there had been no prosecutions, in consequence of the severity of the punishment. But no facts were quoted to sustain this assertion. If, however, there were no such facts, which might be doubted, he should still maintain, that although some men were prevented from prosecuting, by this, severity of punishment, he was entitled to assume that very many more were prevented from crime by, the same severity. That this law had operated, to prevent crime in the disturbed districts, he had not the least doubt. It was, indeed, to be recollected, that tranquillity had been restored in these districts before, any change took place in our commercial circumstances. To what then was this restoration of quiet to be attributed, unless to the efficient operation of the law, and the improved temper of the people? But, to return to the allegation that this law was ineffective, because there had been no convictions under it, because it was not enforced; the House must remember, that at the time this law was under discussion, it was much dwelt upon that the Stocking frame Act had, never been enforced. Now, as the latter Act, which was known to exist, and prescribed transportation, did not operate to prevent crime, was it not fair to calculate, that the severity of the punishment prescribed by the former did, by inspiring terror, operate such, prevention? for the cessation of crime did immediately follow such enactment.

Mr. Horner

supported the argument, of sir Samuel Romilly, illustrating the severity of the law under consideration by stating, that even an apprentice, who should wilfully cut any of his master's stockings or lace in the frames, or any, or the utensils used in the machinery, would be, under this Act, liable to capital punishment, without any proof of confederacy or combination whatever; while the master would, be subject to punishment for misdemeanor, if he declined to prosecute the apprentice detected in such an act. After pointing out this case, which could not be denied, he thought it unnecessary to urge any farther argument against the cruelty and injustice of a law, which the right hon. mover notwithstanding proposed to continue, without even the plea of necessity. There might be circumstances which would render that an offence at one time, which, would be quite innocent, at another. An act of parliament had once existed against drinking healths, because that was a badge of hostility to the crown—the sign of a disloyal conspiracy. The cutting of stockings or lace might two years back be deemed a capital offence, because such was the conduct of a dangerous combination; and yet such, cutting might be consistently met at this day by a much less severe punishment, because the combination had ceased to exist. Indeed, he could see no reason for retaining the capital punishment in the Act under consideration. In point of fact, this Act had never been enforced either at the commission or elsewhere, the delinquents which the Act professed to have in view being all met by the old established laws of the land. By that law he wished the country to be governed, and it was quite disarranged by such statutes as that under discussion. Such statutes, indeed, as were too severe in comparison with the offence against which they professed to provide, only served to put the ingenuity of the judges in action, in order to evade them. Unfortunately such statutes were to be found. Under the Stabbing Act, for instance, which imposed a capital punishment upon any man who stabbed another, even though death did not ensue, unless the other had a weapon in his hand; he remembered a case in which a humane judge ruled, that a coachman's whip, held in the left hand and resting upon the ground, was a weapon which served to save the prisoner from the penalty of the Act. But how would any judge feel, if an apprentice were brought before him under the circumstances he had described, subject to the severe visitation of the law under discussion; against the continuance of which, without even the shadow of necessity, he entered his decided protest?

Mr. Serjeant Best

admitted the general reasoning of the last speaker, but denied its application to the measure before the House. He said, the law had been found beneficial, and that was an argument why the House should continue it.

Mr. Abercromby

opposed the continuance of the Act, on the same grounds as Mr. Horner, and used nearly the same arguments.

Alderman C. Smith

was in favour of the Act being continued.

Mr. Courtenay

lamented the discussion that had taken place, in consequence of the predilection of the right hon. gentleman opposite (Mr. H. Addington) for a former measure. The Bill now would become an instrument of cruelty against many who might be brought within its operation, though originally directed against a very different description of persons—those engaged in illegal combinations. Nothing but necessity, could justify such a measure as the present; and the necessity having ceased, the measure of course ought not to be revived. It was now unnecessary with respect to those against whom it had been generally directed, and would be cruel and oppressive to others.

Mr. H. Addington

admitted, that there no longer existed a necessity for the measure. The office, with which he was connected, carried on a correspondence with most parts of the kingdom; and in that correspondence nothing had appeared that called imperiously for the present Bill; but from the recent date of the disorders for the suppression of which the Bill had been enacted, he was led to infer, that it still ought to be continued, as a measure of precaution and prevention, which had originally been productive of the most beneficial effects.

Mr. Lockhart

said, that the present time was very different from that when the Bill had been introduced into the House. Conspiracy and murder, with crimes approaching to high treason, then prevailed in the districts assigned for its operation; and the penalty of death which it imposed served as a warning to the country at large. The crimes, however, which he mentioned, were now all done away, and not a loom was now unemployed, unless from want of hands to work it. He should vote now against the Bill, for the same reason that he had formerly voted for it.

Mr. Brown

should be guided by the necessity of the case, and no necessity now existed; he did not choose to legislate upon speculative grounds.

Mr. H. Addington

disclaimed any such intention.

A division then took place.

For the second reading, 37—Against it, 15—Majority, 22.