HC Deb 05 June 1817 vol 36 cc897-909

Lord Castlereagh presented the papers referred to in the Prince Regent's Message, which were brought up, sealed in a green bag.—The Prince Regent's Message relating to seditious meetings being then read,

Lord Castlereagh

said, that, in proposing an answer to the royal Message, he did not mean to pledge the House as to the nature of the proceedings to be afterwards adopted; or whether, in point of fact, any ulterior measures should be pursued. He should confine himself simply to a motion of thanks to the Prince Regent, and to assure his Royal Highness that the House would take the papers into their immediate and serious consideration. In the present stage of this business it would be impossible for him to make any opening as to the actual state of the country; and, indeed, he felt persuaded that it would be most acceptable to the House that he should not now attempt to enter into any details. After the present motion should be disposed of, he intended to submit, that the papers should be referred to a select committee, to be immediately nominated, and to be confined to the same persons as were members of the last committee, except the late attorney-general, who had ceased to be a member of that House. Those persons must be much more competent than any other members to follow up the communication from the Crown; but as it was desirable that the committee should consist of the same number of members, he should propose that the name of the present solicitor-general (sir Robert Gifford) should be substituted for that of the late attorney-general. The noble lord then concluded with moving the address to the effect before stated.

Lord Folkestone

said, that as the noble lord had opened the course of proceedings to which he meant to resort, the House ought seriously to pause before they took another step, which must lead to the subversion of all the liberties of the country. For his part, he confessed that he concurred entirely in the abhorrence which had been expressed in a petition presented from Reading with respect to the measures of his majesty's ministers. He wished he could say, that this was the first step they had taken towards despotic power; but if the House did not stop them now, there was an end of English liberty. If the Habeas Corpus act were to be suspended for any longer time, it might hereafter be made a dead letter, whenever the ministers thought proper, and the constitution of the country was gone for ever. The House would remember, that, in the last session, he had declared his apprehension of the consequences of keeping up a large standing army; and they would now determine whether subsequent proceedings did not justify the observations he then made. One of the first measures was the passing of the Alien act, which was a direct introduction of lettres de cachet. On that occasion he took the liberty of warning gentlemen, that if they suffered lettres de cachet to be introduced, no matter against whom they were to operate, whether aliens or natives, other measures would speedily follow, entirely destructive of all British freedom. The Crown, however, had been suffered to retain a large standing army, a large staff, and large establishments; and if, in addition to this, we suspended the Habeas, Corpus act, we put the whole liberties of the country into the hands of the Crown; we made the Crown a despot; and the people of England were as complete slaves as the people of any other country. He protested against the whole of these proceedings, He would not consent to any farther suspension of this great bulwark of our liberties; and he warned the House, that if they gave their assent to the propositions of the noble lord, the probability was, they would never see the Habeas Corpus act unsuspended. What! should this country, this England, so loved, so honoured by our ancestors; should this land, which gave freedom to every slave that set his foot upon it, be governed by the arbitrary will of any set of ministers? What had become of that patriotic spirit which raised this country to its former greatness? He would not surrender to ministers the power of suspending the laws of England: he would not consent to any committee, be they chosen how they might. Let the proper persons examine the papers, and let them report the evidence to the House; but then let the House judge fairly and impartially for themselves. The committee ought not to be composed of those persons who examined the former papers, as they must have a bias on their minds; they should be different persons, who would enter into the examination without prejudice or par- tiality. If discontents existed, they arose out of the great distresses of the country, which the noble lord had formerly ascribed to a sudden transition from a state of war to a state of peace, but which, he must be now convinced, were not merely temporary. Ministers might wish to remedy these evils, but it could not be affected by the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. The whole House, in a committee, ought to consider what were the proper remedies to be applied; and they should not consent to resign the liberties of the people, merely because ministers came down, and stated, that traitorous practices were still continued.

Mr. Curwen

expressed his concurrence in the opinions of the noble lord. A delay of a few days until the approaching trials were over, would, without the apprehension of any improper disclosures, enable the whole House to take the papers into consideration, instead of referring them to the consideration of a Secret Committee.

The motion was agreed to. Lord Castlereagh then moved, "that the papers which were this day presented to the House by lord viscount Castlereagh, by command of his royal highness the Prince Regent, be referred to a committee." Lord Folkestone moved, by way of amendment, "to examine and arrange the same, and to report the substance thereof to the House, omitting only such names of persons as in the judgment of the committee it may be dangerous to the persons themselves to disclose." The amendment was negatived, and the main question agreed to. It was then ordered, that a committee of secrecy, consisting of 21 members, be appointed; after which lord Castlereagh moved, "That such members as were of the committee of secrecy appointed on the 5th day of February last, and who are now members of this House, be members of the said committee."

Sir. J. Newport

objected to this proposal on three grounds: first, it was going out of the way, to insult every other member of the House as not being worthy of such a trust: besides, the House elected the last committee by ballot, under the circumstances that then existed; but circumstances were now entirely different; then we were at the commencement of a session, and now at the close of one: then the powers required were to be exercised till a new session, perhaps till a new parliament. Secondly, the members of the last committee must necessarily be more or less partial and prejudiced. It was almost unavoidable with the ordinary frailties of human nature, not to feel some bias towards the support of an opinion once advanced; and many considered, that their whole reputation depended on maintaining a sort of obstinate consistency. Thirdly, he had an objection to the appointment of any of the ministers of the Crown on this committee, because they had already pronounced a decided opinion on the subject; and the noble lord himself had said, that a spirit of sedition existed in the country; and that the people were to be tried on this charge by a committee. He (sir J. N.), on the part of the country, challenged that jury; he challenged it on the part of the country in the same manner as he would on the trial of a criminal; he challenged that jury, because the country could not have a fair trial by a jury that had already decided on the point at issue. At any rate, on the event of a farther suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, he now announced his intention to take the sense of the House on a clause which should limit the duration of such a measure to the existence of the present parliament. If it were continued beyond that period, the people would not be in a state to exercise their elective franchise; and he hoped, at all events, that it was not intended to proceed to a general election while a sword was suspended over the people by a hair, which might any moment be cut at the option of ministers. He should propose, as an amendment, "That the committee do consist of the following members: Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, lord G. Cavendish, sir C. Mordaunt, Mr. W. Pole, sir S. Romilly, Mr. Attorney-general, Mr. Solicitor General, sir James Shaw, Mr. Davenport, Mr. Greenhill Russell, Mr. John Fane, Mr. James Abercromby, sir John Sebright, lord Althorp, Mr. Stuart Wortley, Mr. Williams Wynn, Mr. Shaw Lefevre, Mr. Courtenay, Mr. Lyttelton, Mr. Wilberforce, and Mr. Addington."

Mr. Bathurst

considered the course proposed as unusual. As to the objection of disrespect to the rest of the House, it was to be remembered, that the same inquiry was to be made by this committee as by the former, and that the former was chosen by ballot: but the right hon. baronet, instead of acquiescing in those named by the House itself for making the very same inquiry, had said, "Reject them, and take 21 named by myself." But it was impossible that a committee of new members could come to so sound a judgment as the old committee, who would examine with the advantage of having had all the papers and evidence before them on the former occasion. As to their being prejudiced and partial, if they had formed a wrong opinion on the former committee, they had now an opportunity to correct it; but if all their opinions had been borne out by facts, the advantages they would derive from having a thorough knowledge of all the previous transactions, would much more than counterbalance any evil that might be anticipated from the infirmity of human feelings. The committee were not called on to come to any certain conclusion; and the point before them was, not whether the liberties of the country ought to be suspended, but whether any steps at all ought to be adopted in consequence of the state of the country. As to challenging the jury on which the right hon. baronet seemed to dwell so triumphantly, and rejecting the presence of ministers, because their minds were made up, the right hon. baronet had himself contradicted his own argument, by nominating himself two of the ministers. He might indeed say, that they were not on the last committee; but, according to him, their minds were made up, and that was the principal ground of his challenge. But, admitting that the right hon. baronet were to challenge the jurors, as partial, how was the allegation to be supported? His majesty's ministers had seen the whole of the papers; these papers the committee would also see; and why were ministers more partial because they had already seen that which all the committee must see before it came to a decision?

Mr. Brand

said, that the great object of appointing a committee was, to obtain an impartial discussion of the evidence on which the great point of the suspension of our liberties was now to rest. The right hon. gentleman had shown a degree of triumph, because the right hon. baronet had named one of the ministers for this committee (he wished he had not done so); but this afforded no ground for a hasty or inconsiderate appointment. Ministers had preferred a sort of bill of indictment against the people of England, and they were to be tried on charges of sedition and rebellion; but by what jury? He would ask. whether the report of the last committee had given satisfaction to the discreet or reflecting part of the people? If he were to ask out of doors whether the committee had been satisfactorily appointed, the answer would be, No! they were not appointed by the House, they were merely nominated by ministers. Let a committee be fairly appointed by the House. He thought the reasons alleged by his right hon. friend against appointing the same committee had great weight in them; for it was impossible to conceive that men who had before made up their minds should not continue in some degree wedded to the opinions they had formed at first. A committee was wanted that should come to the business without the influence of any preconceived opinion; but had not ministers made up their minds beforehand? If his majesty's ministers, if the representatives in parliament, wished to carry the people with them, they would cautiously abstain from introducing into the committee any persons whose names were not such as would carry conviction to all honourable, discreet, and conscientious individuals.

Mr. Barham

agreed with his hon. friend, that the people were brought to a sort of trial, and that it was highly necessary the jurors should be altogether impartial. He took the earliest opportunity of entering his protest against the measures in contemplation. On former occasions, he had felt himself constrained, painfully constrained, to concur in measures which suspended the liberty of the subject. The circumstances of those times seemed, in some measure, to justify such a course of proceeding; but circumstances at present were so obviously different, that he should not detain the House by dwelling upon them. We were then engaged in a war, not for pride, not for prosperity, but for existence: it was then known, that if discontents existed in the country, they could be fomented from without by a powerful enemy, and every encouragement and assistance held out to the disaffected: those discontents, too, were ramified and extended in every direction through the country. At present, not one of these grounds of alarm existed: no force was in arms against the government, either within or without the country; and the disaffected were without credit, without encouragement. We were at peace with all the world, and the foreign spirit of revolution and disorganization had not only fallen into disrepute, but had been succeeded by a reaction of the very opposite tendency. The measures at present in contemplation were also the more grievous, as they seemed not to be temporary, but meant for a continuance, and as an overture to the total extinction of our liberties. If ministers succeeded in their present intentions, he could not conceive a case in which I they might not for the future demand a suspension of the Habeas Corpus. Any wicked minister, wishing to be absolute, would only have to instigate a disturbance, by any of the easy methods for raising the passions of the poorer classes of society, and there would then exist the same ground for suspending our liberties as at present. Neither were the measures proposed at all applicable to what had happened: he might admit that certain districts were in a state of disturbance, and that might afford a reason for enacting a law as to those particular districts; but was it any ground for depriving the whole country of its rights and liberties? We were familiarizing our ears a great deal too much to this word suspension. Did we sufficiently consider, that when the Habeas Corpus act was suspended there was no difference between this government and that of the most despotic sovereign? The power which a minister had of committing to prison on such occasions was quite as great and as dangerous as the lettres de cachet, so long and so justly reprobated. We were congratulated on the glorious issue of the war, as it was termed—on our triumphs and our acquisitions: but in what had we conquered, if we were after all to lose our rights and liberties, and all our importance as a nation? What had we gained, or in what was this government different from that of Buonaparté, if our personal freedom was taken away? Was he any longer addressing a free people? And if a new parliament should be elected (which he trusted would never be the case) during a suspension of all our freedom, would it be a parliament? Could the people be said to exercise their elective franchise, when any party whose conduct or opinions might be deemed obnoxious was liable to be imprisoned during the pleasure of ministers? In surrendering this they surrendered every thing—themselves, the House of Commons, the country.

Mr. W. Smith

thought a wrong decision had been come to by the late committee on the information laid before it, and was therefore unwilling to send any new papers before the same tribunal. With respect to the place with which he was connected, he was sure an improper decision had taken place in the Lord's committee, and he did not know that any evidence but that on which their report was founded had been submitted to the committee of the House of Commons. The Steward of Norwich, a very respectable magistrate, who usually takes the chair at the sessions in the absence of the recorder, had requested him to state to the House, that the grand jury had been charged to inquire if there were, or had been, any seditious or blasphemous societies. A very careful inquiry was in consequence set on foot, and the result of it he begged to read. He then read the presentment made by the grand jury, in which they declare it to be their opinion, that no such societies existed in that city. On this presentment being made, the steward discharged the grand jury, declaring that in his opinion the city of Norwich must now stand acquitted of that with which it had been charged. This was said not merely in an official way, but was the private opinion of that respectable magistrate, who had authorized him to state the fact as forcibly as he could to the House. All that had occurred since the reports were made, he contended went to falsify the predictions which had been hazarded from certain quarters. He wished the facts which had since transpired in Norwich, to be compared with the information given the committee. Since the period to which he had referred there had been an election; he did not mean to say a bad spirit had not been manifested on this occasion; there had certainly been some riot and tumult, which every respectable person in Norfolk must have been grieved to see; but there had been nothing that could be taken to indicate disaffection in the common sense of the word. The tumults which had occurred were of a character directly opposite. The inquiry now called for ought, at all events, to be entrusted to other hands; if this were done, he should rather hope that a different conclusion would be come to by gentlemen who had no former opinions to maintain, than from those who had already a pledge as he thought had by the members of the late committee. He would therefore rather see the inquiry confined to some of his hon. friends behind him, than to the colleagues of the noble lord opposite. In Ireland, when a part of the country was declared to be in a disturbed state, the whole kingdom was not put out of the law. He there- fore contended, because symptoms of disaffection had been manifested in some parts of this country, it did not follow that the whole of it should be deprived of the benefit of the Habeas Corpus act.

Mr. Protheroe

thought the last committee should have contained more county members. He had given his vote in favour of the result of their report, chiefly because of their unanimity, and that was a circumstance that in any new committee would much influence his vote. The renewal of the suspension would be a more important measure than the first suspension. He did not approve of any individual member nominating a list of members, with the semblance only of a free election.

Mr. Lamb

supported the amendment, and pressed the noble lord to agree to a new committee of unbiassed and intelligent members, and to lay all the papers before them. On former occasions, the minister had proposed the renewal on his own responsibility. That was a manly mode.— But when it was attempted to mix in a committee, with ministers and their friends, some of those who were generally contrary to them in politics, such a committee ought to be formed upon a larger basis, or it could not be expected to be satisfactory to the country. The proceeding of the noble lord could not farther even his own views. If his proposed committee made a similar report with the last, the people would say, that they were prejudiced and pledged. If that committee, so constituted, presented a different report, then the people would say that they had been alarmed by the public reprobation which their former conduct had received.

Sir W. Burroughs

contended, that it would be more satisfactory to the House and the country that 42 members should concur in the necessity of the continuance of this measure, than to have merely the report of 21 members selected by the noble lord and his colleagues.

Lord Milton

said, the motion of his right hon. friend did not appear to him to suggest the most convenient mode of appointing a committee. If it should be the pleasure of the House to revive the old committee, he should certainly be constant in his attendance. It could not be denied that the old committee would possess greater facilities for conducting the inquiry, and would more readily take up the sequel of that which they had begun, than it could be taken up by any other body of men. But at the same time it must be admitted, the old committee would not produce that effect on the public mind which was desirable. The advantages and disadvantages of the two plans ought to be balanced. He could wish to mix up some new names with some of the old committee. He was unwilling to exclude ministers. He thought they ought to be in the committee, as well as some of his hon. friends who were directly opposed to them. The other members of the committee he could wish to be new, and selected from different sides of the House. He wished the committee to have the power of sending for persons, papers, and records. He did not approve of the motion of the noble lord, nor could he vote for that of his right hon. friend.

Mr. Stuart Wortley

was afraid the country would not be satisfied if the old committee were revived without any alteration. He could wish some new members to be added to it. To accomplish this, he supposed he must first vote for the motion of the noble lord, and he presumed it would then be competent for him to propose that other members should be added to the old committee [Cries of No, no!].

The Speaker

apprehended the course proposed to be pursued, was impracticable now. By the vote of the House it had already been decided, that the committee should consist of twenty-one members. If, then, it should be carried that the old committee should be revived, that decision would be conclusive against the admission of new members, but in cases where the old members could not be obtained; one new member, it was known, must be added in the room of the late attorney-general.

Mr. S. Wortley

then announced his intention to vote for the amendment.

The House divided:

For the original Motion 126
For the Amendment 66
Majority 60

List of the Minority.
Atherley, Arthur Douglas, hon. F.
Althorp, visc. Fazakerley, N.
Astell, W. Fellowes, hon. N.
Barham, J. F. Folkestone, visc.
Barnet, James Finlay, K.
Barnard, visc. Gordon, Robert
Brand, hon. T. Grenfell, Pascoe
Bennet, hon. H. G. Guise, sir W.
Babington, T. Gaskell, B.
Campbell, hon. J. Hamilton, lord A.
Carter, John Hornby, E.
Curwen, J. C. Hurst, R.
Duncannon, visc. Hammersley, H.
Leader, W m. Portman, E. B.
Latouche, Robert Protheroe, E.
Lamb, hon. W. Rancliffe, lord
Lefevre, C. S. Ridley, sir M. W.
Martin, J. Russell, lord W.
Mathew, hon. M. Sebright, sir J.
Milton, visc. Sharp, Richard
Monck, sir C. Smith, J.
Moore, Peter Smith, W m.
Newman, R. W. Shaw, sir James
Newport, sir J. Tremayne, J. H.
North, D. Teed, John
Ord, W. Tierney, rt. hon. G.
Osborne, lord F. Warre, J. A.
Ossulston, lord Wortley, J. S.
Onslow, Arthur Walpole, hon. G.
Parnell, sir H. Waldegrave, hon. cap.
Philips, G. Webb, E.
Piggott, sir A. TELLERS.
Powlett, hon. W. Burroughs, sir W m.
Ponsonby, rt. hon. G. Calcraft, John
Proby, hon. capt.

The main question was then agreed to, and the Solicitor General was added to the committee.

Lord Folkestone moved, "That it be an instruction to the said committee, that they inquire particularly into the origin, character, and extent, of the disaffection supposed to exist, or which may be alleged in the said papers to exist, in the country; and that they examine witnesses both to these particular points, and as to the credit due to the written evidence on which the allegation of such disaffection is founded; and that they report their opinion on all these matters distinctly to the House, together with an Appendix, stating the substance of the evidence on which such opinion shall be founded."

Lord Castlereagh

opposed the motion; first, on the ground that part of it was unnecessary, as the committee were already empowered to send for persons, papers, and records; and, secondly, because the appendix would expose many things which it was expedient, for the ends of justice, should not to be exposed.

Mr. Bennet

observed, that if the last committee had examined witnesses, they would never have made the report which had excited so much disgust. Could there be a doubt, that many of the circumstances mentioned in that report would have assumed a very different aspect if those busy, meddling, mischievous magistrates who, in order to stand well with the ministers, had furnished all sorts of rumours and charges, had been brought before the committee? If those enlightened gentlemen, who had lately carried on such an interesting correspondence with the home secretary; if those worthy persons, who called themselves knights of Brunswick, one of whom, in the late contest for Norfolk, had been author of one of the most atrocious calumnies that ever issued from the press; if such pernicious meddlers were brought to the test, and their vague assertions were well sifted, could there be any doubt that the result of such examination would be, that their charges would dwindle into the most ridiculous insignificance? He was the more led to make these remarks on account of some circumstances that had taken place in his own county, and also in the town which he represented in parliament. He had been told, that, in Northumberland, a mischievous magistrate had thought proper to bring charges of a treasonable nature against a gentleman of the first respectability; and had put him, as it were, to the ban, as a dangerous person, because forsooth he had gone up to the Cheviot to hunt; and this wise magistrate had taken it into his head, that he was going to array the shepherds in arms against the government. And yet, contemptible as such a suspicion was, this gentleman, before he set off to hunt, was forced to go and explain his object to this informing officious magistrate. He verily believed, that nine-tenths of the evidence furnished by the magistrates would, if sifted to the bottom, be found to be equally groundless and absurd. In the town which he represented, though there had been the greatest distress, yet it had been borne more patiently than in almost any district, nor was there the least trace of disaffection; yet he had been informed, that within this day or two, the streets of Shrewsbury had been paraded with cavalry, on some mistaken notion that some of the inhabitants intended to attack a depot of arms there. He could assure the House, that the inhabitants had no such intention, [a laugh from the Treasury-bench]. He did not quite understand the meaning of that laugh; but he would re-assert, that the inhabitants of Shrewsbury contemplated no such disorder as was imputed to them; and he would say, generally, that he firmly believed, that if any disaffection existed any where in the kingdom, the cause was to be traced solely to the measures of the government itself.

Mr. Bathurst

could assure the hon. gentleman that he was misinformed as to both the circumstances related. No intelligence had been sent to government, by which any gentlemen, either in Northumberland or Shropshire, were compromised.

The motion was then negatived.

Lord Folkestone

said, that notwithstanding, the failure of his motion, he should offer another. He had understood that several persons had been taken up under the suspension act, and he knew particularly that three persons had been apprehended in Berkshire. It was a grievous thing if those persons should be suffered to rot in gaol indefinitely; but he knew no other means of remedying so great an evil than by the motion which he should now propose. It was, "That it be an instruction to the said committee, that they inquire into the particular case of each and every person detained under the provisions of an act passed in the present session of parliament, 'for enabling his majesty to 'secure and detain such persons as his 'majesty shall suspect are conspiring 'against his person and government;' and that they report to the House, a list of such persons, stating their names, their trades, professions, and occupations, their ages, the places of their confinement, the places where arrested, and the dates of their arrest and commitment, together with their opinion on the necessity and expediency of their arrest, and commitment, and of the continuance of their detention."

Lord Castlereagh

opposed the motion. The secretary of state acted upon a grave responsibility, and ought, therefore, to be trusted with a certain discretion. Besides, the motion would defeat the very object of the acts passed this session, which were intended to give the power of detaining in prison without trial, in cases where the ends of justice would not be forwarded by immediate trial.

The motion was then negatived.