HC Deb 28 February 1817 vol 35 cc783-95
Sir James Shaw

said, a petition had been put into his hands, which had been agreed to at a meeting of the livery of London that day assembled in Common Hall. He had been prevented from attending the meeting, but he understood that it had been very numerous, and that the petition had been agreed to unanimously, The petition was couched in decent and respectful language; the prayer of it was, that the bill for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act should not pass into a law. With respect to the other measures before the House, he thought that circumstances rendered them necessary; but with regard to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, he considered that it was uncalled for by the necessities of the case. He then moved that the petition be brought up.

Mr. Calvert

could not help congratulating his brother liverymen that they had found at last another representative to coincide in opinion with them, and to do justice to such petitions as they might think proper to present to the House. He had not been at the present meeting, but he agreed with them in thinking that the present measure was altogether uncalled for, and that the House, in depriving the people of their rights and liberties, were neither warranted by any thing contained in the report, nor by any thing that had fallen from his majesty's ministers.

Mr. Calcraft

thought the speech of the hon. baronet who had presented the petition, most valuable. That hon. baronet had seen the terrible mob which had been the occasion of the suspension bill: he had been one of those by whom that mob had been dispersed, and if the best evidence had been wanted before the secret committee, none could have been better than that of the worthy alderman. It was now the only one before the House. He congratulated the city of London on the circumstance, that one of their representatives, after seeing all these mighty undertakings, which were to end in the seizing of the Tower, and the destruction of the bridges and barracks, and after taking such a prominent part in the crushing them, came forward and bore testi- mony to the insignificance of these undertakings. It was not on such grounds as had yet been laid before the House, that the great charter of our liberties, the sheet-anchor of our constitution, ought to be suspended.

Mr. P. Moore

congratulated the House on the acquisition of evidence which superseded all the evidence hitherto given. If hon. gentlemen would abide by their own senses, and not by the ill-fangled report of the secret committee, they would come to the conclusion that that report was a libel on the country, and an attempt to impose evidence upon them. He wished that every member should be called upon in his place to declare what was the state of the part of the country which he represented, if this were not done, the country was condemned unheard. If the House did its duty by its constituents, it would set aside the report. Most of the petitions demanded the restoration of the rights of which the people had been deprived, but instead of doing that, the House proceeded, as often as it met, to deprive them of other rights. The constitution rested on two great pillars: property and liberty. The whole property of the country was now gone. It had been taken in taxes and wasted in wars, for the nefarious purpose of preventing reform. Now that the ministers had obtained all they could in point of money, they wished to take away the liberties of the country. It was a foul conspiracy against the people and the state for the purpose of establishing despotism. The question was, whether Englishmen were to remain free, or to become a nation of slaves.

Sir Samuel Romilly

took this opportunity, while they were deliberating on a motion for bringing up a petition from the livery of London, to beg the House would take into its consideration how very large a number of the subjects of this country could not express their sentiments on the subject of this measure, and that those who could not possibly come to the bar of the House were precisely those who would be most affected by the measure. If by the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act the people of England would be placed in a miserable condition, the people of Scotland would be placed in a far more miserable condition. He did not know that there was any difference between the people of the two countries till he saw the clause of the act which related to Scotland. There was no difference between the two countries in the act of 1794, though at that time the situation of Scotland was such as to give rise to great alarm, and a convention was actually held in Edinburgh. He doubted whether any persons but the law officers of the Crown knew what would be the situation of the people of Scotland Under this bill. The situation of the people of England was, that any person committed by a warrant signed by any of his majesty's secretaries of state, or by six privy counsellors, for high treason, suspicion of high treason, or treasonable practices, could not be bailed or brought to trial without the consent of six privy counsellors, until the 1st of July 1817. This was certainly a violent encroachment on the liberties of the people, but still in this part of the kingdom, there never was so wild an idea entertained as that the power of commitment under the act should be confided to any magistrate. But the situation of the people of Scotland under this act was this, that not only on the warrant of a secretary of state or six privy counsellors, but on the warrant of any subordinate magistrate, any sheriff substitute, or any justice of peace, could persons be committed on charges of high treason, suspicion of treason, or treasonable practices, but all judges were prohibited from holding them to bail or trying them, until they could obtain the consent of six privy counsellors. With the permission of the House he would read the clause of the bill relating to Scotland—"And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the act made in Scotland in the year of our lord 1701, intituled, 'An act for preventing wrongous imprisonment, and against undue delays in trials—(the great Habeas Corpus act of Scotland passed in the reign of king William)—in so far as the same may be construed to relate to the cases of treason and suspicion of treason, be suspended until the first day of July, 1817, and that until the first day of July, 1817, no judge, justice of peace, or other officer of the law, in Scotland, shall liberate, try, or admit to bail, any person or persons, that is, are, or shall be in prison within Scotland for such causes as aforesaid, without order front his said majesty's privy council, signed by six of the said privy council." So that any man who stood committed by any inferior magistrate, any sheriff substitute for instance, might be kept in prison under such commitment, and could not be brought to trial without the consent of six privy counsellors. He really did not believe, that the members from that part of the country were aware how the liberties of Scotland were disposed of under this bill. The noble lord (Castlereagh) had told them the other day, that they need not be afraid, they knew into what hands this power was to be committed; but he did not then tell them that this power was also to be placed in the hands of the learned lord opposite, for whom had the greatest respect, though the learned lord had not yet been in such at public situation, as to afford him any opportunity of knowing whether he could safely place the liberties of all Scotland in his hands. But under this bill, the liberties of the people of Scotland were not only placed in his hands, but in the hands of all magistrates, of persons who were not responsible, like cabinet ministers, men who had the eyes of the public on them, but obscure magistrates. This was putting the whole of the people of Scotland, and more especially the lower ranks, in a situation in which their liberties must be taken away without remedy. How could any obscure individual, in that remote part of the empire, possibly have such interest with six privy counsellors, as to obtain an, order to be brought to trial? He could not bring himself to believe, that even his majesty's law officers, were aware of the situation of the people of Scotland under this bill, or that the members for Scotland knew of it. He was happy to have had it in his power to make this statement in presence of the first law officer of Scotland, that if he had fallen into any mistake on this subject it might be immediately corrected.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

, after the statement which had been made by his learned friend, a statement of the correctness of which he was convinced, from its not having been disputed by the learned lord opposite, put it to the House—if they were resolved that this bill should pass into a law—whether they would allow it to pass with this blemish?

Sir S. Romilly

rose to state, that though the same clause was not in the act of 1794, he was aware that it was in the act of 1798.

The Lord Advocate

of Scotland said, he knew that it was competent to any member to make observations on the subject of petitions presented to the House, but he was not aware that any member was at liberty, in a discussion on the motion for bringing up a petition, to make observations on a clause in a bill which was not then under the consideration of the House. When that bill came properly under the consideration of the House, he should be ready to answer the statement of the hon. and learned gentleman.

Mr. Brougham

agreed with the learned lord that it was competent to any hon. member to make observations on the question for bringing up a petition, and the House did not want such high authority to convince them of their being in the possession of this right. If they doubted it, however, they now had it from high authority. They had it from the highest law authority of Scotland, the learned lord opposite, newly imported into the House from that country, that it was competent to every member to make observations on the question for bringing up a petition. He wished the learned lord to know, that this was a right with which the greater part of members of this part of the country had long been acquainted. He wished him to know, that it was to this right they were indebted for some of the most valuable privileges that ever were wrung from a reluctant government; and he trusted that this right would still enable them, acted on with proper spirit, to defend the liberties of the people against the encroachments of the enemies of these liberties. But this was the first time that he understood that it was not competent to any member to ask such explanation on the subject of a clause in a bill which would shortly afterwards be discussed for the last time in the House, as, if obtained, would enable the House to come properly prepared to that discussion, and to ask that explanation from the person who must be supposed best able to give it. He rather thought the reason why the learned lord did not meet the statement of his learned friend with any explanation, was, that he had no explanation to give.

The Attorney-General

could not help thinking that the hon. and learned gentleman had not correctly heard what fell from the learned lord. He merely stated that he would give the necessary information to the House at a more convenient season. The best reason why such statements should not be brought forward, except when the subject to which they referred was properly before the House, was, that the person to whom it belonged to give the proper information could not be supposed in his place to-give such information. He knew that when the subject came under the consideration of the House the state- ment of the hon. and learned gentleman could be satisfactorily answered.

Mr. Madocks

hoped as a petition was now presented from the city of London against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, that time would be given for his constituents to send a petition from Boston. He hoped time would be given for the whole country to petition. He hoped the House would interpose to compel ministers to postpone the third reading for a week or ten days, to allow a fuller attendance of members, and to afford the other half of the House, now absent, most of them probably in the country, to attend in their places, and report on the several districts they reside in or represent, as to the actual condition of the people. Would the House suffer the measure to be precipitated in this manner? Would they allow the people to petition on a turnpike road that leads to the county town, and prohibit them from petitioning on a measure that leads to the county gaol, and that too on suspicion. And where was the road by which they were to return? Not through the avenues of justice, for they were closed, and the trial by jury denied them. And when? Who could predict the duration of their durance? Who could foresee the numberless pretences which the ingenuity of tottering power might invent for its continuance? The descent to the dungeons in the Tower was easy and certain; the return difficult and uncertain— Facilis descensus averni, Sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad aurus, Hic labor, hoc opus est.

The Lord Advocate

asked sir Samuel Romilly, if he had not said the clause objected to was not in the act of 1794?

Sir S. Romilly

answered in the affirmative.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, before the House proceeded further, he would read a clause in the act of 1794. [Here the right hon. gentleman read a clause, which was worded like the clause in the present bill.] He did not see how his hon. and learned friend could by any subtlety establish a difference between the two clauses of the act of 1794 and the present bill.

Sir S. Romilly

disclaimed all pretensions to subtlety. When he made the statement he had expressly stated, that if he was wrong he should be happy to be corrected. He had looked over the bill of 1794 too hastily. However, the ques- tion for this House was not whether the clause was ever before in the act, but whether they were to lay the people of Scotland prostrate at the feet of the learned lord and any magistrate in the county, and. upon that subject the learned lord had, as yet thought proper to give no explanation.

Mr. Ponsonby

asked, what it signified whether such a clause was in the acts of 1794 and 1798 or not? He would ask too those around the learned lord, whether they understood the clause? Would any of them get up and explain it to the House? Would they tell the House and the country, what they certainly had not understood, that by this measure they would place the liberties of Scotland at the mercy of the lord advocate, and every inferior magistrate of that country.

Mr. Bathurst

said, that whatever might be the merits or demerits of the clause, there was no one at present to answer for them, as it had stood in other bills which had passed the scrutiny of as great acute-ness and talents as the House could now boast.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table.

Mr. Brougham

said, he held in his hand another proof of the great advantage which would result from allowing the people of this country time to express their sentiments on the important measure now before the House. Although one half-day only had been allowed to the inhabitants of Liverpool, they had sent up the petition which he now held in his hand, couched in respectful language, praying the House not to pass the Habeas Corpus suspension bill into a law. When he looked to the names he found among them the greatest proportion of the wealthy, respectable, and distinguished inhabitants of that place, and in confirmation of this he would refer to the right hon. gentleman opposite, the member for that town. The petitioners said they did not venture to express any opinion on the subject of the allegations in the report of the secret committee, but they ventured to express a strong apprehension that whatever foundation there might be for the charges in the report, there was but too much reason to suspect that it would bring into activity designing and mischievous men, who, without knowing any thing against any body, would insinuate matters of accusation against their neighbours for the purpose of involving them in trouble.

Mr. Coke

said, he took that opportunity to state a fact, which still further invalidated the report which had been presented to the House from the secret committee. He submitted to the House whether the authority of that report was not weakened day by day; and even by the statement of the lord advocate respecting the arrests in Scotland, which proved the efficacy of the existing law. He held in his hand a letter from a gentleman of great respectability residing at Norwich, who was a member of the societies which had been aspersed in the report, called Union Societies. This gentleman, Mr. Edward Taylor was a member of the Norwich Union Society. His letter he should read to the House. [Mr. Coke then read the letter, which stated, that the writer had seen in the report of the secret committee in the newspapers, the Union Society of Norwich, in common with other Societies of the same description, charged with taking secret oaths? with being affiliated with other societies, and holding midnight orgies, in which the scriptures were ridiculed, and plots discussed for overturning the government of the country. Having been a member of that society from its first formation, he was able to give, from his own knowledge, an unqualified denial of every part of that accusation. The sole object of the society was parliamentary reform, of the necessity of which he had, from his first being able to form an opinion, been convinced: and to endeavour to obtain which, by all lawful means, he felt a duty incumbent upon him. The Society never held correspondence with any other society. It neither desired nor courted secrecy, but had printed and published the declaration of its sentiments. It had no oaths of any kind: it had brought no arms, nor had ever intended to use any weapons but truth and reason; whatever the religious opinions of any of the members were, they were never made the subject of discussion—much less was religion scoffed at or ridiculed. He therefore imagined that the report must have been founded upon evidence suspicious, because, as far as regarded Norwich, it was utterly unfounded. He therefore hoped it would not be; made the ground of subjecting every Englishman to the danger of a Bastile; and he was ready to give proof of his assertions either to any member of the administration, or to Mr. Coke if he required it]. The hon. member then observed, that it was certainly surprising that the committee had proceeded upon evidence which had turned out to be so erroneous. As to the character of the gentleman who gave the information, his hon. friend (Mr. W. Smith), and the other member for Norwich, if he had been present, would be ready to give the most satisfactory testimony.

Mr. William Smith

rose exactly to the same point as that to which his hon. friend had spoken. To the character of the gentleman whom his hon. friend had referred to be could bear testimony, but he wished his hon. colleague had been present, who though he differed from him in political opinions, would speak equally favourable of the character of Mr. Taylor. He felt it necessary to say, that when he saw the report (which was that of the committee of the other House, which alone referred to Union Clubs) he had never imagined that the accusation against these societies could at all refer to that at Norwich. Being in the habit of communicating continually with the citizens of Norwich of all descriptions, as well those who agreed with him in political opinions as those who were of a very different persuasion, he could say that he never heard one imputation on the motives or conduct of that society, even from those who were not at all friendly to its objects. As to the individual whose letter had been read, there could not be a man of greater respectability, or less likely to be concerned in any improper practices. The letter which he had received from that individual differed from that which his hon. friend had read, in a postscript, which stated that the declaration of the Union Society was inclosed to him, which declaration the writer had thought of sending to lord Sid-mouth. At a meeting held at Norwich for the purpose of obtaining parliamentary reform, at which he (Mr. S) had been present, he had not the slightest hesitation in saying, in full hall, that it was of no importance what reform took place in parliament, unless the electors reformed themselves: and that any man who suffered himself to be influenced in his vote by any private consideration, was not entitled to petition for parliamentary reform. It was obvious that men who received favourably such a declaration, were not of those wild and intemperate persons who were unfit to judge on any political question. That meeting was perfectly quiet, and showed no disposition to interfere with the peace of the city or the country at large; and though at that meeting, as before the august assembly which he then addressed, he was ready to state that universal suffrage and annual parliaments formed no part of his creed, he was not in any fear of losing the confidence of the people of Norwich on that account.

Mr. Bathurst

observed, that the report before the House could by no possibility be construed to extend to the Norwich Union Society, neither did he think that a candid perusal of the report of the other House would lead to the supposition that this society was implicated in the improper practices. The declaration of the Norwich society had been before the committee of that House, and it was not thought that it would justify any allusion to it in the report—that declaration was in favour of annual parliaments and universal suffrage. If it found its way into the report of the other House, it was coupled with other societies, but it could not be supposed that the mischievous designs alluded to were to be attributed to every one of those societies, much less to every member of them.

Mr. Harvey

said, that as he had recently come into the House, a letter had been put into his hand by his hon. colleague from a respectable gentleman of Norwich. He was ignorant of the question before the House. If it related to the Union Club, he could say he knew nothing of it. If to the writer of that letter, Mr. Edward Taylor, he knew him to be a man of considerable respectability, a person for whom, (though he differed from him in political questions) he had the greatest respect, and who he was convinced would never be connected with any club or society whatever, which had for its object to subvert the constitution.

Mr. Tierney

said, the facts which were continually coming out proved the use of having the report which had been laid before the other House and the necessity of some delay to examine the foundation of those reports. That evening, for the, second time, it had been proved, that the Lords committee had been mistaken in matters of fact. The Lords committee had proceeded upon the same evidence as the Commons, but had drawn different conclusions from it. It was very necessary to ascertain in what the Lords had been mistaken, for as two mistakes had already been discovered it was possible they might find out ten more. It appeared, from what had been said that night, that the Commons committee had before it the declaration of the Norwich society, but had not thought it necessary to mention it. There was only this same declaration before the Lords committee, and yet on that slight foundation they had thought fit to impute to the society practices leading to revolution. Now, if they were to suffer these unfounded assertions to pass without inquiry, there was an end of security for the character of any man, however innocent; and, what was more, there was an end of all respect for that House in the country, if they could consent to pass a law founded in great part on such misstatements.

Sir James Mackintosh

spoke shortly in the highest terms, as to the respectability of Mr. Taylor, the gentleman from whom the letter came, which had been read to the House.

Mr. John Smith

considered it very improper not to give the people time to contradict the imputations that had been flung on them in the report of the secret committee, which he denied was founded on facts. The report began with an allusion to a society called the Spenceans, which, it said, had openly existed. Now, he was member of a committee for inquiring into the distresses in Spital-fields, where he had found an excess of misery, that would have induced compassion, even to the errors of the sufferers; but although he had gone from house to house, and from room to room, he could not, in all is visits, discover any traces of its existence. And after all that had been said upon the subject, both in the report and in the newspapers, he was inclined to believe the entire Spencean society to be what was vulgarly called a humbug. It was indeed very possible that many persons in the country might entertain wild and chimerical doctrines, but the report applied this character to the whole country. With respect to the riots on the 2nd of December, he allowed that he had felt a considerable alarm on that occasion, but the whole proceeding could not justify the application to it of the term insurrection. An insurrection at 12 o'clock, in the middle of the day, and in the city of London! If, indeed, it had burst out at 12 at night, or even at five in the evening, it might have been so designated, but all he could say was, to express a hope that proper precautions would be taken against the recurrence of such excesses, but by other means than the suspension of the Habeas § Corpus act. If this suspension were put in force in the east end of the town, in Spital-fields, it might be almost considered as a blessing, for there were thousands of persons there who would gladly barter their liberty for food and clothing. As to the imputation of irreligion, he thought it a gross: libel on the people of England, though there might be some individuals who were tainted with improper principles, the great body of the people was more religious than before the revolution. He could answer for this in the district with which he was connected. He thought it also threw a discredit on the report, that it did not allude to the Luddites who had very recently committed outrageous breaches of the peace. The hon. member stated, that a short time since he had been in France, when, in the pride of English liberty, he had, in the presence of a Frenchman, censured the power of arbitrary imprisonment in that country; but the Frenchman taunted him with the frequent suspensions of the Habeas Corpus act, and said, that all the boast of English freedom was a mockery, as it might be at any moment suspended at the desire of the ministry. This the hon. member denied, saying that no minister would dare propose the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, unless the cause was manifest to the whole nation, and approved by the majority of the people. "I now," said Mr. Smith "blush to find that the Frenchman judged more correctly than I did of the presumption of an English minister, and of the constitution of an English House of Commons."

Mr. Long Wellesley

said, he differed materially from the hon. gentleman who spoke last, as to what was the general opinion in the country concerning the bill before the House, for he believed that the public opinion was strongly in favour of the bill. That hon. gentleman had said, that among the inhabitants of Spital-fields he had found no Spenceans; but the fact was, that none of those who professed the Spencean principles would be willing to avow them, so that there was no good argument to be deduced from the hon. gentleman's inquiries as to that point.

Lord Cochrane

said he had received a letter from Mr. Chapman, a member of a club for parliamentary reform, at Loughborough, denying all the charges against those societies in the reports of the secret committees.—He took that occasion to ask the lord advocate, whether it was true that the persons arrested in Scotland were of the lowest orders with the exception of a schoolmaster and lawyer's clerk? It was said, that it was a meeting of poor persons to obtain some parochial relief. He was confirmed in the belief that it was so, by a letter from Glasgow, dated so far back as Feb. 8, in which it was said, that at a meeting in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, a dignitary of the law, who received a pension from the public, had asserted that the heritors were not bound to assist the poor. The Sheriff had decided, however, in favour of the people, but the appeal was carried to the court of session to teach them patience. This letter was signed J. M'Arthur, which was the name of the gentleman who had transmitted to him the petition frm Glasgow.

Sir F. Burdett

presented a petition from the chairman of the Leicester Hampden club who felt himself aggrieved, in common with many other individuals, by the report presented to both Houses of Parliament. He wished to vindicate the club from the imputations cast upon it, and was ready to prove at their bar, that its meetings were held for the laudable purpose only of seeking to obtain such a reformation of that House as would restore the people to their just rights and privileges.

The petitions were ordered to lie on the table.