HC Deb 26 February 1817 vol 35 cc698-708
Mr. John Smith

presented a petition from the inhabitants of' Nottingham against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. The petitioners said that they were grossly calumniated in a report that they had seen in the public papers, as coming from a Secret Committee of that House, and which represented them as seditious, disaffected, and treasonably disponed. He did think it might have been possible to give some of the evidence before that committee without the names, in order that it might be seen what proofs were offered of such charges being applicable to the people of that or any other part of the country. The petitioners, however, distinctly denied the charge against them.

Lord Rancliffe

said, that he should be wanting in his duty to the House and to his constituents, if he did not, on every occasion oppose the measure which was in contemplation for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus. He regretted that the noble lord (Castlereagh) and his right hon. colleagues did not attend in the early part of the evening to hear the salutary truths contained in the petitions of the people. For himself he would not shrink from his duty, nor bow to any minister, or any set of men whatever, and least of all could he consent to place additional power in the hands of a man who had originated measures of so diabolical a nature into the sister island. The noble lord had betrayed his own country—what, then, could be expected from him in this?

Mr. Madocks

declared, that his constituents and himself were most hostilely disposed towards the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, a measure which had never before been resorted to in peace, except once, when the circumstances of the times were very different from those of the present period. He hoped that at least the second reading of the bill would be postponed for a week, in order that the House might be called over, and that the people at large might have time to express their sentiments on the subject. He gave notice that after this petition should be disposed of, he would himself make a proposition to that effect.

Mr. Brougham

perfectly agreed in the sentiments of his hon. friend and of his constituents. A more flagitious and indecent proceeding never took place within those walls, than the attempt to hurry such a measure as the suspension of the Habeas Corpus through the House, on grounds such as those stated in the report of the committee of secrecy. He highly applauded the notice given by his hon. friend. His majesty's ministers could not complain of any undue advantage being taken of them by any such motion, when they recollected that although this week they were in so great a hurry, they last week—in one instance, for a party purpose, and in the other to suit private convenience—lost two whole days in that House. After that, they had no right to contend that time pressed with respect to this important subject. The best course that his hon. friend could adopt, would be (after the present petition should be disposed of) to move that the order of the day for the first reading of the bill be read for the purpose of deferring it until this day se'nnight, and then to move that on that day the House should be called over.

The Sheriffs of London presented at the bar a petition from the lord mayor, aldermen, and commons of London, in common council assembled, against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus.

Sir W. Curtis,

in moving that it should lie on the table, said, that he would declare to the House, what he had that morning declared in the common council, that he disapproved of every sentiment and expression of the petition.

Sir James Shaw

had no difficulty in stating that the three bills—for extending to the Prince Regent the protection afforded by law to his majesty's person, for more effectually punishing any attempts to tamper with the military, and for preventing seditious meetings—seemed to him to be measures well deserving the attention of the House. But with respect to the proposed suspension of the Habeas Corpus, he declared most solemnly and conscientiously that, after all the attention which he could; possibly bestow on the opening speech of the noble lord, and on all which he had since heard, he did not see that any ground had been laid for such a proceeding. If the present situation of the country could be compared to its situation in 1795, he should have no difficulty in giving the proposition his fullest support. But he could see no parallel whatever between the cases. In 1795, we were at war with France, we were in expectation of being invaded, revolutionary principles prevailed in this country to an alarming extent, and were supported by men of rank, fortune, and talent; and there existed a society in actual correspondence with, and receiving money from the enemy. How different then, was our present situation. Believing, in his conscience, that this country might be restored to perfect tranquillity without the adoption of any measure such as that proposed, he pledged himself to oppose it in every stage.

Mr. W. Smith

declared his most decided disapprobation of the proposed measure. With respect to the three other bills, he thought that for rendering more penal the seduction of the military, and that for putting the person of the Regent on the same footing in point of protection as that of his majesty, extremely proper. On the third for the better suppression of seditious societies, he was not so clear, and should reserve his opinion. He confessed his surprise at the declaration made by the hon. aldermen who had moved that the petition should lie on the table. Did he really hear that hon. alderman declare, that in every sentiment and expression of that petition he totally disagreed with his constituents?

Sir W. Curtis

—You heard me very right [a laugh].

Mr. W. Smith

expressed his regret that he had so; and said that he was in hopes the hon. alderman would have taken the opportunity that be had afforded him of giving a more satisfactory explanation of his opinions.

Mr. Curwen

declared, that he had sat in that House when a measure similar to that now proposed was discussed by some of the greatest men that ever were within its wails, and that however widely those individuals differed from one another on the subject, no one had ever exhibited so scandalous a want of feeling for the liberties of the country, as that which had been just displayed. He could not but deeply regret that the hon. alderman opposite should think the present a fit subject for laughter. He gave credit to the noble lord by whom the measure had been introduced into parliament, for the declaration, that it was with much pain, and only upon an utter l conviction of its necessity, that he had proposed it; and that it should be made the theme of sport, in any quarter, he sincerely lamented. For himself, while he admitted that he would not shut out of the consideration of parliament the expediency of in some degree strengthening the hands of government—while he allowed that if the existing law could be shown to be insufficient to meet the existing circumstances, he would not hesitate to go a certain length in their extension, he maintained that from all that he could observe there was not the slightest necessity for the adoption of a measure which went to take away the whole liberty of the subject. He would not at the present moment consent to place the required power in the hands of any minister. He allowed, that if placed at all, it could not be placed in better hands than those of the noble lord at the head of the home department, whom he took pride to himself for having supported many years age, in that administration during which lie was employed in the abolition of those measures of terror which had been resorted to by his predecessors in office; but not even to him would he entrust such a power, unless a case were made out as strong in its nature, as to compel his assent—a case of which he did not know more than two instances, in the last century, namely, the years 1715 and 1745. Without the establishment of such a case, any, attempt to suspend the most valuable privileges of Englishmen, was most loudly to be deprecated.

Sir W. Curtis

was astonished that any member should have charged him with any thing like levity in any thing that he had said or done in the House that evening. He was not accountable for the laugh of the House. He had not himself shown any degree of levity, but merely stated that his sentiments differed totally from those in the petition.

Sir John Newport

said, it would be in the recollection of the House, that the noble lord had urged the necessity of the House agreeing to one of his measures, because part of an act passed in the year 1799 had been done away with by the expiry of another act passed in the year 1796. A respectable law authority on his side of the House had, however, declared, that the act of 1799 was not done away with; and he had heard nothing from the law authorities on the other side which seemed to him to have any weight. But, however, that might be, sure he was, that the House, before they passed such a bill, ought to see that the reason for passing it was well founded, and to call for that information which they at present wanted on the subject; and if this was not agreed to, he should consider ministers as wishing to force the measure on the House, without their having due information. If the noble lord chose to proceed with this undue rapidity, he would want much respectable support, which he would otherwise have to the bill. The subject ought to be first examined above stairs in a committee, when the assistance of the best law authorities might be obtained.

Lord Castlereagh

said, the information before the House was sufficient to warrant the measure which was this day to occupy the attention of the House. The right hon. baronet had strangely misconceived what he had said on a former evening relative to the acts of the 36th and 39th of the king. He believed that there was not the slightest difference of opinion between the learned gentlemen on the two sides of the House, respecting his statement, that the second branch of the act of the 39th of the king, applicable to Debating Societies, containing provisions referring for execution to the act of 1796, from the expiry of the latter act, had become inadequate, But he had justified the necessity of the bill on the larger ground of its being necessary from the present state of the country.

Mr. Philips

said, as the district in which he resided had been particularly referred to in the report of the secret committee, as one of those in which treasonable conspiracies against the constitution and government of the country were carried on, he thought it necessary to trespass on the attention of the House, while he stated the result of his own observations in that district. From the termination of last session to the commencement of the present, he had resided constantly in that part of the country, and he could not fail, certainly, to have a great desire to make himself acquainted with the situation of the district. He found the distress so great that no man, who had not lived in the manufacturing districts could possibly have a conception of it. To adopt one phrase of the report of the secret committee "few, if any," in these districts were fully employed,—few if any, of those who were employed, could maintain themselves—and those who could obtain sub- sistence, were not able to obtain clothing. The distress was so great that the poor-rates were perfectly inadequate to the support of the indigent. They were doubled, but still they were found inadequate, many of those who formerly paid rates having become paupers. The only resource was to form funds for the support of the poor, and, that these funds might be distributed judiciously, committees were appointed to examine into the situation of all those who applied for relief. In many of the suffering districts there was not a single poor family which had not been visited, and respecting which a report had not been made. He was not saying too much when he stated that half the time of the whole families of the more opulent persons in the district in which he resided, was taken up in providing food and clothing for the indigent. Surely at a time like this, when the suffering was so severe and so general, and such as no man living had ever before witnessed, much forbearance was due to them; and even if they should occasionally give vent to their feelings in strong language, they were not at once to be set down as engaged in attempts to overthrow the constitution. Who were the witnesses on the authority of whom the House were on the point of delivering up the liberties of the people into the hands of ministers? In Manchester and its neighbourhood he did all he could to obtain the best information—he had made every examination in his power into the state of the district; but he had never seen any thing which could in the slightest degree justify the assertion in the re-report He knew that in that district there were persons who would lend a credulous ear to treasonable practices, he believed for ever. He knew people near him, who, when every thing was in the most perfect tranquillity, could not sleep in their beds for apprehension, and, if such persons were to be believed, Manchester and its neighbourhood were in a most alarming state indeed: but the persons in question knew in reality as little as he did—they had merely lent a credulous ear to every tale and report which was brought to them. One of these persons came to him in a dreadful state of alarm one day, and said, "Have you not heard what happened within a few miles of us?—a person who happened to say something against the reformers has had his house burnt down— we shall all of us have our houses burnt down in the same way." On inquir- ing into the circumstances of the case, which had been thus magnified into a systematic attempt on the part of the reformers, it turned out that the man against whom the fury of the reformers was stated to have been directed, had burnt his own House down, and the dreadful alarm of this person had no other foundation than this frivolous and ridiculous story.— He had inquired also into the state of the adjoining districts, and the disposition of the people in them. One person told him that a dreadful disposition to insurrection existed in that neighbourhood. He had inquired into the particular grounds on which he rested his opinion, but he could draw nothing from him. He had then made inquiries of others in whose veracity he could repose the utmost confidence. They said, we hear, indeed, of treasonable meetings and disorders, but we see nothing of them —all that we see is, that the poor are in a state of dreadful suffering. In Manchester many of the people conceived that parliamentary reform was likely to afford the best remedy for the distresses of the country, and those who wished to call a meeting for the purpose of petitioning for parliamentary reform, had applied in the most orderly manner to the town officer for his consent to their holding such a meeting. On the refusal, on the part of the authorities, they called a meeting notwithstanding, but this he must say, that the people assembled behaved with the greatest tranquillity. He had passed the meeting, and from curiosity he had looked with attention to their manner of proceeding, and he could safely say that he had never witnessed people behave more tranquilly and display a more patient submission. He had made these observations, because Manchester and its neighbourhood having been so particularly referred to, he should like to see something of the evidence on which the committee founded this part of their report, because if they were to listen to persons who believed in all plots and all treasons they might give themselves up to perpetual apprehension. Had he been a member of the committee of secrecy he should have said, let me have an opportunity of examining the witnesses before I admit their evidence. If the legislature passed some of the other bills the most serious powers would be placed in the hands of the municipal officers of provincial towns. These persons were as credulous often on the one hand as the poor people were on the other. He knew some of them who would haven no hesitation, if any meeting were called to petition for the removal of abuses, to call it a seditious meeting, however orderly it might be—if they were to petition for the removal of his majesty's ministers many of these municipal officers would call it count seditious. The House ought to see more evidence before they proceeded to pass such bills as those now before the House. That some sort of combinations in the manufacturing districts did exist, had always existed, and would always exist, for the purpose of obtaining a rise of wages, was well known to every person at all acquainted with them; and if they were to listen to stories of such combinations they might keep the Habeas Corpus act perpetually suspended.

Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald

put it to the House whether they would proceed farther without calling on government to explain distinctly the fact, whether any of the higher orders were engaged in the conspiracy against government or not? If not one of the higher orders were engaged, be called on them, on their responsibility, to assert distinctly that it was so. He called on them also to say, whether any of the middling rank were engaged in the conspiracy. He had no hesitation in expressing his assent to the two bills for the security of the person of the Regent, and the punishment of the seduction of the soldiery; but when ministers also proposed the suspension of the liberties of the country, he was bound to pause. He did not belong to the country where the measures were to operate; but he wished to act towards Englishmen as he wished them to act on occasions when the liberties of his own country were at stake. He viewed the attempt against the person of the Regent, in common with all his friends around him, with the abhorrence which it deserved; but he believed the same dislike to it did not exist on the other side of the House as on this. He firmly believed that the enormous civil and military establishments which were at the command of government were quite commensurate to the repression of any dissatisfactions or disturbances if they should exist among the lower orders of the people.

Mr. Wrottesley

was sorry the grand question had been thus anticipated, as it could lead to no good. But the hon. member opposite (Mr. Philips) had given a description of the state of Manchester, and felt extremely sore that that part of the country should have been mentioned in the report. No man was unaware or unconcerned at the general distress, which was not peculiar to Manchester, but affected every part of the country. The county of Stafford, with which he was connected, was in the same distress as Manchester, and the gentry had done as much for the relief of the people as those of any other part. But he would tell the hon. gentleman, that the people of that quarter had not been led into the same excesses as those of Manchester. When those gentry were so kind as to send from their seat of eloquence their perambulating orators, at so much a-day, into other counties, where the people had no idea of disloyalty, it was not to be wondered at if they had made some alteration in the opinions of their auditors. One of these gentry was deputed from Manchester to Newcastle-under-Lyme, and was to have 24s. 6d. for his patriotic labours. These orators, the friends of the hon. gentleman opposite [Loud cries of Hear, hear!] had done, however, little or nothing in Saffordshire, where the people had no other feeling than that of gratitude to their benefactors; and the one who came to Newcastle had been literally hooted out of the town. He hoped the hon. member would in future be able to keep those meddling persons at home, and not allow them to sow dissatisfaction among their neighbours.

Mr. Ponsonby

expressed himself astonished at the charges which the hon. and learned gentleman had thought proper to heap up against his hon. friend. He was astonished, when he recollected that for several years that hon. gentleman had cooperated with his hon. friend, that he should never before have seen any thing disloyal in his conduct, or an inclination to support disloyalty in others—that he should have seen this now, and seen it for the first time. "Oh, but at that time he was of the same party." He recollected extremely well the time when the hon. and learned gentleman had entertained a more favourable opinion of his hon. friend—an opinion which he had never changed until he got to the opposite side of the House, closely pinned to the back of the right hon. gentlemen of the treasury bench [Hear! and laugh]. He would tell the hon. and learned gentleman, however, that his hon. friend was as loyal as he, or any of his proudest or meanest connexions [Hear, hear!] No man of those who filled the highest dignities in the country had an honester heart, or a more independent mind than his horn friend [Loud cheering].

Mr. Wrottesley,

in explanation, said, he was not aware that he had attributed any thing unconstitutional to the hon. gentleman, or stated that he was connected with disloyal persons. [Several members here cried out, "you called them his friends"]. He was sorry that he had unguardedly made use of such an expression. The hon. gentleman opposite was the last person to whom he should attribute any improper views.

Mr. Brougham

said, the hon. and learned gentleman had richly merited the castigation which had been inflicted on him by his right hon. friend. He had been relieved from taking further notice of one part of the speech of the hon. and learned gentleman, that part in which he had called the emissaries of sedition the friends of his hon. friend, thanks to the sober sense of the hon. and learned gentleman, when brought to his recollection by his right hon. friend. But there was another part of the speech of the hon. and learned gentleman on which he had given a misrepresentation of a fact stated by his hon. friend. That fact was most important, coming as he did, from the vicinage which was said to be disturbed; and he hoped that the testimony of his hon. friend would, on that account, have that weight which it ought to have. The hon. and learned gentleman had stated, that in Staffordshire the distress was as great as at Manchester; and he wished that the people of Manchester had only behaved as well. But his hon. friend's testimony went to this, that Manchester and its neighbourhood were in a state of the most perfect tranquillity—that every thing was so still, that one might, to use a homely expression, almost say, "you might hear a rat stir." [A laugh.]

Sir Gilbert Heathcote

was not satisfied with-the conduct of ministers at this time. Did they offer any reduction of their places, the unmerited emoluments of which excited so much disgust? He was sorry to say that their policy was of a different description. It was stated, that while the people pretended to seek reform, they intended to effect a revolution. He was of a different opinion. Twenty years ago he had voted for parliamentary reform, and he had no such intention, nor did he believe the people had. He was satisfied that the present laws were perfectly adequate to the security of the country, and therefore that such extreme measures as were now proposed were unnecessary. If the danger was so great, why had not parliament assembled sooner? The hon. baronet proceeded to deny the necessity of these measures at the present time, by drawing a comparison between the settled state of Europe now, and the convulsed and disorganized condition of it when similar measures were last resorted to.

The petitions were ordered to lie on the table.