HC Deb 26 June 1817 vol 36 cc1198-204

On the order of the day being read for the committal of this bill,

Mr. Gurney,

as one of those who had voted for the first suspension of the Habeas Corpus as a measure of urgent but temporary necessity, wished to know whether those persons who had now been under arrest for four months, and whose imprisonment it was, by the present measure, proposed to prolong, had been during that period kept in solitary confinement. He was the more anxious on this point, having learnt from a gentleman confined in that manner for fifteen months in the Temple at Paris, during the government of the Directory, that he considered that the human intellect could not sustain itself under such circumstances for any great length of time, without material derangement; and he was afraid that system was, most unhappily, gaining ground in this country—Mr. Gurney said, that since the last debate, he had seen persons eminently well qualified, and who had taken the greatest pains to inform themselves as to the state of Birmingham, which had been mentioned in the last Report as one of those towns to which the spirit of disaffection and consequent organization into societies had spread; and they declared, on the minutest inquisition, that the accusation was totally unfounded. Birmingham was obviously just the place where the greatest distress must necessarily exist— an immense population got together on the two staple manufactures of arms, and of toys—peace rendering the one useless, and poverty the other unsaleable; and yet there there had been nothing but the most exemplary patience and good conduct under almost unexampled sufferings.—Seditious meetings, and incitations to disturbance, the bill passed this session had rendered highly penal already; and when this measure was recommended to preserve the tranquillity of the country, it ought to be considered how it could so operate. There was certainly a small body of political fanatics of great and most mischievous activity, and there were notoriously districts in great distress, where a great disposition consequently existed to acts of tumult and outrage; but against these, all that the present measure would do, would be to take the power away from the ordinary jurisdictions, and out of the hands of the local magistracy, where all the sound part of the population would, for their own sakes, be aiding, and where that power would be effectual, to lodge it in those of a secretary of state, where the natural and honest prejudice of Englishmen against acts of mere authority would lead the mass of the community in every instance to impede its exercise, and where it in consequence would be found utterly useless and unavailing. All this had been pretty clearly proved during the late trials; and Mr. Gurney said, he could not but extremely lament with a view to the impression made in the country generally, that the executive government had so lost the confidence of the people, by the communications of the highest authorities of the state with such men as Castle and Oliver; and, above all, by the unfortunate circumstance of Mr. Reynolds appearing first as a grand juror and then as appointed to an ostensible situation abroad—as to render these transactions subjects of more alarm than a thousand combinations of starving mechanics.

Sir J. Newport

objected to the measure altogether, but seeing that it was likely to obtain the sanction of the House, he would propose a clause to render its duration as short as the assumed necessity justified. By the present provisions of the bill it was to continue till six weeks after the assembling of parliament. This, it was evident, made its duration very indefinite, for it depended on the pleasure of ministers, at what time, after a prorogation or a dissolution, they would call parliament together. There was a rumour abroad, that a dissolution would take place after the termination of the present session, and consequently with the suspension act in existence. If this was the case, it was difficult to say when this oppressive measure would cease. He would not propose that any pledge should be required as to the time of assembling the House; but he would move, that the duration of the bill should be limited to the 1st of December, and thus make it necessary for the Crown to call parliament together, if ministers saw proper to prolong its date. Last year the difficulties of the country were allowed to be great, yet parliament was postponed by repeated prorogations till late in the winter. If ministers so exercised their discretion, this act might be continued as long as ministers chose to exercise the powers it conferred. If at any time it was more necessary than another that its duration should be limited, it was the present, when great general distress prevailed, and it was proved that agents employed by government had endeavoured to seduce the suffering people to the only acts that could justify an extraordinary exercise of power. It had been said, that our constitution could bend to circumstances, and he would allow that the present administration had found or made it flexible and accommodating enough. He would Dot, however, agree to this description of it. Frangas non flectes was the motto best suited to the British constitution, and the sturdy oak not the pliant willow its appropriate emblem. He concluded with moving, "that it be an instruction to the committee, to limit the duration of the bill till the 1st of December next."

Lord Castlereagh

said, that the motion was altogether unnecessary, because it was competent to the committee, without the proposed instruction, to fix the duration of the bill at any period it thought proper. Such an instruction was called for, only where it was deemed proper to introduce in the committee some matter not strictly relevant. But, waving the point of form, he must object to the motion upon principle; for if the state of the country should be such at the period stated in the motion, as to require the further continuance of the act, he did not know that to call gentlemen to attend parliament, from the several districts in which their local influence and personal authority might be so usefully exercised, would not be a greater evil than the cessation of the act itself. As to the rumour of an intended dissolution at the close of the session, he could not think it probable that any of his majesty's ministers would have made such a declaration as the right hon. baronet had stated, for such a declaration would imply an interference with the prerogative of the Crown. But this had nothing to do with the question before the House. It would be obviously inconvenient to assemble parliament before Christmas, and especially so for the Irish members; and yet such a proceeding might be necessary if the motion of the right hon. baronet were adopted. The provision of the supplies, and the re-enactment of the mutiny bill, would of course render it necessary for parliament to reassemble at such time as to render the right hon. baronet's apprehensions groundless, with regard to the indefinite duration of the bill. But yet he (lord C.) proposed to fix in the committee a definite period for the duration of the bill, not so early, however, as the right hon. baronet desired.

Sir, J. Newport

said, that the rumour of an intended dissolution depended on the authority of a noble peer high in administration, who had declared that such a measure was in contemplation, to more than one noble peer of his (sir J. N's.) acquaintance.

Lord Castlereagh

could not answer for what was said by any individual, but he was not aware of any such intention.

Mr. Wynn

said, that if Providence blessed us with a plentiful harvest, of which there was now every prospect, that distress which was the instrument of disaffection, would be taken out of the hands of the enemies of the public tranquillity, and the suspension act might expire on the 1st of December. Every member who supported that act allowed that it was an evil, and that it should not be continued one hour longer than it was justified by the necessity of the case. If, therefore, the difficulties of the country at the period mentioned should be so mitigated or removed as to render it unnecessary, it should then expire; but if dangers to justify its continuance should exist, much as he valued the exertions of members in their country residences, he thought this House would then be the proper sphere of their duties.

Mr. Bathurst

thought any such instruction to the committee unnecessary.

The amendment was negatived. The House then went into the committee. Sir W. Burroughs moved two clauses; the one limiting the provisions of the bill to the counties of Lancaster, Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, and York, together with the towns of Birmingham, and Stockport; the other providing that no committal should take place under the bill, except the warrant, was signed by six privy councillors, two of whom should be the lord chancellor and the secretary of state. Both amendments were rejected.

Sir J. Newport then moved, that the duration of the bill should be limited to the 1st of December.

Mr. Wynn

was in favour of appointing a determinate day for the meeting of parliament.

Lord Castlereagh

objected to the limitation of the bill to a fixed period rather than to six weeks after the meeting of parliament; but if any fixed period was thought necessary, he would, to avoid the necessity of calling parliament together at too early a period, propose, that the duration should extend to the 1st of March.

Mr. Gurney

asked, whether the noble lord intended that the persons now under arrest should continue for nine months longer in solitary confinement.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that every reasonable indulgence, consistent with safe custody would be allowed to the persons in confinement.

General Gascoyne

had supported the former measure, but as parliament was about to rise, he thought the duration of the bill ought to be limited, and that the 1st of December, or some definite times should be fixed.

The committee then divided: For the amendment, 45; Against it, 78.

List of the Minority.
Althorp, visc. Leader, Wm.
Barham, J. Mackintosh, sir J.
Barnett, James Madocks, W. A.
Birch, Jos. Martin, J.
Brougham, H. Monck, sir Charles
Burroughs, sir W. Moore, Peter
Carter, John Neville, hon. R.
Caulfield hon. H. Osborne, lord
Cavendish, lord G. Onslow, Arthur
Cavendish, hon. H. Parnell, sir H.
Cavendish, hon. C. Ponsonby, rt. hon. G.
Duncannon, visc. Pym, F.
Douglas, hon. F. S. Phillimore, Dr.
Fergusson, sir R. C. Ridley, sir M. W.
Folkestone, visc. Romilly, sir S.
Gordon, Robert Scudamore, R.
Grenfell, Pascoe Setton, earl of
Gascoigne, Isaac Smith, John
Gurney, Hudson Smith, Wm.
Heron, sir R. Teed, John
Latouche Robert Wynn, C. W. W.
Latouche, John TELLER.
Lefevre, C. Shaw Newport, sir John
Lloyd, J. M.
Mr. Douglas

objected to the extension of the bill to Scotland, and moved the omission of the clause by which that country was included in its operation.

Lord Folkestone

wished to know whether, in fact, this bill would really extend to Scotland or not. He knew that, according to some legal opinions, the amendment made in the former bill, had taken Scotland out of the operation of the act [No answer was given].

Sir S. Romilly

expressed his surprise that no answer had been given to the question of the noble lord: for if it really was the case that the bill could have no operation in Scotland, then it was not passed for the purpose of suppressing any dangerous practices in that country, but for some unexplained object of ministers. He believed that since the former bill passed, not one individual in Scotland had been committed under it. The question was not whether the Habeas Corpus had or had not been properly suspended in the early part of the session, but whether they should now pass a bill, purporting to deprive Scotland of the benefits of the act against wrongous imprisonment, though that measure was not called for by the state of the country, and when it was not certain that the bill could operate.

Lord Castlereagh

said, it was evidently the intention that the measure should extend to Scotland. He saw no reason to suppose that it could not be executed in Scotland.

Mr. Ponsonby

wished to know for what purpose the second committee of secrecy had been appointed? Was it for mere form, or was it to lay a parliamentary ground for this measure? If the latter, he could say, that the report did not touch Scotland, and he would assert farther, that not a tittle of evidence relative to Scotland had been submitted to the committee. When, therefore, the report was silent respecting Scotland, was it to be endured that the liberties of the whole Scottish nation were to be taken away on the mere recommendation of ministers? What availed the good conduct of the people, their unshaken allegiance, their loyalty or their attachment to the constitution, if this could be done at the mere will of an administration? If the committee, under these circumstances, extended the bill to Scotland, the vote would be the most violent and unjust decision ever made by that House.

Mr. Bathurst

said, it would render the measure altogether illusory, if any privileged place was left, to which the authors of these hostile machinations might retire.

Sir R. Fergusson

rose as a Scotsman to protest against the injustice of extending the measure to his country. He defied the noble lord to instance even a solitary case of disaffection. With respect to the apprehension that the right hon. member expressed as to emigration he believed there was little fear that Londoners would fly to Scotland.

Lord G. Cavendish

observed, that all the disorders which had occurred in the disturbed districts mentioned in the report proceeded solely from the spirit of Luddism, against which the present bill was perfectly inoperative. Before the former bill passed, there had been a great many clubs in those districts, which were of an open, public nature; but after the bill passed, the people, instead of meeting publicly as before, assembled secretly in barns and Methodist meeting-houses, and in that way the late disorders were hatched up. He would ask whether Mr. Oliver, and such men as he, ought not to be regarded as the chief instruments in these movements Nothing could be more culpable than that abominable system by which spies and informers were let loose among, an ignorant people, to work on their passions and provoke them to acts of violence-He should not object to a law for punishing more severely the crime of frame-breaking, or any bill for strengthening the magisterial authority in the disturbed districts; but he must protest against the present bill.

Lord Folkestone

expressed his surprise that ministers had not given any reply to his question. His question was, net whether it was a point of policy that this law should extend to Scotland, but whether in point of fact, Scotland was not taken out of the operation of the act by the way in which the clause was drawn up? If that was the case, it was of the utmost importance that the House should know whether they were legislating for Scotland or not.

Mr. Bathurst

said, that Scotland was included in the act, but admitted that no person had been taken up, and that no evidence was laid before the second committee relative to the existence of treasonable practices or disaffection in Scotland.

The House divided on the clause for extending the provisions of the act to Scotland: Ayes, 129. Noes, 48.