HC Deb 06 June 1817 vol 36 cc910-4
Mr. Bennet

rose, pursuant to notice, to move for leave to bring in a bill for the better regulation of Ale-houses throughout the kingdom. The report of the committee, which had been presented went at great length into the existing management of those houses; but it was not his intention to detain the House long, as he had but a few observations to make. The motion was brought forward in consequence of a vote of the committee, which had sat, as the House knew, during the greater part of last session, and a considerable part of the present, for the pur- pose of inquiring into the state of the police of the metropolis. It early occurred to them, that a large proportion of the vice and immorality which prevailed might be traced to the bad system at present acted upon, in licensing and regulating public Houses. It was therefore thought expedient to make a special and distinct report upon that subject. It would be seen by the evidence in that report, not only that houses of the most nefarious kind were permitted to exist, but that they existed with the full countenance and concurrence of some of the police officers who frequented them, and who had a fellow feeling with the persons assembled in them. There were above 200 houses of that description in London, in which a nightly and promiscuous assemblage took place, not only of men and women, but of boys and girls, of eight, nine, ten, and eleven years of age. In some of them there was established a sort of regular court of justice, at the head of which a jew presided, before whom was brought all the pillage and profits of the day and night, and who superintended their regular distribution. He knew one instance, of a boy not 13 years old, who, in the course of one night disposed of property in one of those houses to the amount of 100l. The propriety of putting down such monstrous abuses, would be admitted by every one. The law by which all public houses were at present governed, was the 29th of George 2nd. According to that law, it was necessary that any person applying for a licence, should have a testimonial of character; and that certain recognizances should be entered into. But a regular system of evasion was practised, which rendered both these precautions nugatory. Haifa crown would, at any time, purchase the requisite character, and as to the recognizances, they were mere nonsense. The clerk had a list of publicans alphabetically arranged, according to which list A. became security for B., B. for C, and so on. In that way, both the character and the recognizances became a mere nullity. It was his intention, if the House permitted him to bring in the bill, to provide that bona fide characters should he given, not only by persons residing in the parish where the public house was to be set up, but by persons belonging to the parish where the publican himself lived, and where, consequently he would be well known. With respect to the recognizances, he would specifically enumerate the different kinds of offences by which they would become forfeited; and the publican himself should be bound in a greater sum of money, as well as the other party, than was now required. Upon transgressing any of the rules laid down for his conduct, he should be liable to a greater fine than could be inflicted at present; upon a second transgression, the fine should be still farther increased; and upon a third, it should be imperative for the magistrates to send him before a jury at the Quarter Sessions. If found guilty there, his recognizances to be forfeited, his licence taken away, and he to be declared incapable of keeping a public house afterwards. His house was to be shut up, and the licence suspended, whenever he was sent before a jury, and not to be reopened till the general licensing day, when it was to be considered as a new house. Another part of the bill would go to prevent that system which now prevailed of brewers compelling their tenants to use only their own beer— a system which completely deprived the public off the advantage of having a good and wholesome beverage. He meant to introduce a clause, declaring such contracts between brewers and publicans null and void, and leaving the latter at full liberty to obtain their beer wherever they could get it best. He was aware that those contracts were already so considered in the courts of justice, where it had always been laid down, whenever such cases came before them, that the brewer was bound to supply good beer, or else the publican had a right to obtain it elsewhere. The effect of the clause in question would be to open the trade, and greatly to benefit the public. The next important point which would be embraced in the bill, was an alteration in the powers now possessed by magistrates of refusing and taking away licenses at their own discretion. That was a power, he contended, with which no man ought to be invested; a power which enabled a magistrate, from whim, caprice, or resentment, to reduce an individual from a state of comparative opulence to one of utter pauperism. Many instances of that kind had come to the knowledge of the committee. It was no answer to tell him, that the magistrates could be called to an account for their conduct. They could not be called to any account, unless they assigned a corrupt reason for refusing or revoking a license. So long as they kept themselves snug and quiet in their licensing room, and grounds for their proceeding, the duals aggrieved were wholly without redress. By the alteration which he proposed to make, the property of publicans would be put where it ought to be put, where, in fact, all other property was put, in the hands of a jury. He should therefore move, "That leave be given to bring in a bill for amending the laws for regulating the manner of licensing alehouses in that part of the united kingdom called England, and for the more effectually preventing disorders therein."

Mr. Stuart Wortley

thought this proceeding of his hon. friend very extraordinary. A committee, of which he was chairman, had been appointed to inquire into the police of the metropolis, and had produced a report which was as yet in the hands of very few members; yet upon this report of a partial case, the information contained in which was still unknown, he moved for leave to bring in a bill for the whole kingdom. He not only objected to the mode and the hurry of the measure, but would oppose some of its most important clauses. He could not allow the power of depriving publicans of their licenses to be taken from the magistrates, which he conceived to be the only great check which the laws had imposed upon irregularities, and the only safe-guard of public morals, till he heard it proved that they had misconducted themselves in so important an exercise of their authority.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

gave the hon. member high praise for the perseverance and labour he and the committee had bestowed on the subject. Every country gentleman must have felt that the most painful part of their duty consisted in being obliged to stop the license or permit the abuse, and that no middle course existed to check the mal-conduct of the publican.

Mr. Sumner

saw no irregularity in the manner of introducing this bill. It might have been introduced on the suggestion of the hon. member, without any recommendation on the part of the committee, but being backed by that recommendation, it came with more force.

Mr. Shaw Lefevre

pronounced a high panegyric on the labours of the committee and his hon. friend. The evil called loudly for remedy, and now, when it was proposed that something should be done effectually, it was but an ungracious re- turn to that committee to object a point of supposed irregularity.

Mr. Gooch

considered the hon. member entitled to much praise for the pains he had bestowed in investigating the evil complained of.

Leave was then given, and the bill was brought in and read a first time.