HC Deb 30 June 1817 vol 36 cc1268-77

Mr. V. Fitzgerald moved, the order of the day for the farther consideration of the report of this bill.

Sir F. Flood

opposed the bill. It implied that the conduct of Grand Juries had been improper, which he would never admit. The measure ought to be postponed, and to be brought forward after it should have been more naturally considered next session. It was an enactment against prudence, economy, and every principle which both sides of the House had so warmly promoted during the session. It created 36 officers of considerable emolument, and appointable by the government. The people of Ireland were in a state of starvation, and ought not to be taxed with 15,000l. to pay those new officers.

Mr. Abercrombie

thought the bill a most important measure. He would support it, because he conceived it to be calculated to promote the domestic prosperity and welfare of Ireland. It was in the first place a remedy for the abuse of oaths. He read from the evidence given by Mr. V. Fitzgerald before the committee, a statement, showing that perjuries as to roads and presentments were so familiar, that they were not regarded as so criminal as other perjuries. In the second place, this measure would operate against the spirit of jobbing, which at present prevailed in grand juries. The other great advantage of the bill respected the manner of conducting business by grand juries. At present it was utterly impossible for grand juries to get through their business. He again read from the evidence of the right hon. gentleman a conversation he had had with the present solicitor-general for Ireland, by which it appeared, that in the county of Tipperary the grand jury were obliged to sit thirteen hours every day: and although no criminal indictment, and no cases connected with the judicial administration, were considered by them, they could bestow only two minutes upon each presentment. The bill went to correct this evil, by establishing a previous investigation at quarter-sessions by persons whose knowledge, experience, and local information, qualified them to investigate fully the necessity of any measure proposed. A great collateral advantage would be, that the character, weight, and authority of quarter-sessions would be raised. It was well-known that the quarter-session was generally held by a person called the barrister-assistant. No opportunity of traversing any bill was given till 1 or 2 in the morning; and then there was such a multitude of bills passing through the hands of the judge, that it was impossible to know whether the one to be traversed was passed or not. He would appeal to the House whether it was fitting that the people should be taxed to support such a system. It was the indispensable duty of the House to interfere. The whole principle of the bill was a principle of economy. It provided that no money should be raised without ascertaining the necessity of the object, the suitableness of the proposed measure, and the most economical mode of effecting it. The hon. baronet had also objected to the 36 surveyors. This might be inconvenient, but he thought it the best means of ensuring the purpose of the bill.

Sir George Hill

expressed his sincere regret in feeling himself obliged to oppose any measure brought forward by his right hon. friend (Mr. V. Fitzgerald); but he conceived the present bill so entirely inadequate to its professed purposes of amending, whilst it was totally subversive of the principle and system of the existing grand jury laws, that he could not give his assent to it. The execution of county works, particularly roads and bridges by grand jury presentment, had contributed to the improvement of Ireland, by throwing open ready communications through bogs, mountains, and fastnesses, from the interior to her shores in every direction, which would not have been perfected by any other system for one hundred years to come, and to which agriculture, commerce, and civilization have been greatly indebted; it is therefore neither wise nor just to revile and subvert a system which has worked so much benefit to Ireland, and it becomes matter of surprise that his right hon. friend, after the evidence which he himself has given before the committee up stairs, should so completely omit to model this bill upon that opinion, so strongly expressive of the respectability of the grand jurors generally of Ireland, and of the importance of retaining to them their influence in the presentment system, whilst this measure is calculated to render them insignificant cyphers.—Previous to the present king's reign, roads, & c. were executed under the provisions of various statutes from the beginning of James 1st reign, regulating what was termed the six days labour of the parish; but by the 5th of the present king all former road acts were repealed, and grand jury presentments from that period came into regular practice: after a course of above thirty years (various road acts having been passed), an entire revision of them took place in 1796, which ended in their repeal, and all the useful provisions with many excellent amendments were embodied into one law, in which code is to be found the principle of every good regulation for the present- ing, executing, and accounting for county works. He admitted, that in process of time, further revision and amendment have become necessary, but he deprecated abolition as amendment, and the substitution of a plan which he declared to be in its present shape, confused, contradictory, and impracticable. Since its first introduction, it had already received as many brought-up clauses as there are letters in the alphabet, and still it remained, a crude ill-digested measure.—A committee up stairs had been appointed in 1815 to revise the grand jury presentments, when they made a report: that committee was renewed in 1816, when two reports were made. That committee examined evidence relative to the conduct of Irish grand juries only in sixteen counties out of the thirty-two, and relative to eleven out of these sixteen, the testimony given was strongly in favour of the presenting system, and highly creditable to the general conduct of the grand jurors of those eleven counties; of the conduct of the remaining five counties it may be urged, that the persons examined left doubts. Now if there be delinquent counties, if there are grand jurors or grand juries in the habit of acting corruptly, he contended they ought to be exposed, that the law was sufficiently strong to punish them; but a few honourable members had no right, from the abuses which they witnessed in their own counties, and did not proclaim and punish at home, to come to parliament and charge such abuses indiscriminately against all the resident gentry of Ireland, preferring a bill of indictment, it would seem, against thirty-two counties, of which sixteen had been condemned without evidence, and eleven contrary to evidence, He professed ignorance of the conduct of those five counties, or of their practices as grand jurors, but if they were generally delinquent, which he more than suspected to be the opinion of some honourable members, it would be but can did on their part boldly to say so, and not stamp the whole country with one common mark of censure and reprobation.—What had been the result of this inquiry, and these three reports? Why, a bill brought in this session by the chairman of that committee (Mr. Cooper) and printed and sent to Ireland in February last, which was deemed so objectionable, not to speak more harshly of it, that it was abandoned. And what is the present bill? An abortion, or at best, a rickety offspring of the one abandoned, exhibiting every feature for which the former was rejected.—The committee up stairs in 1815 conclude their report by stating, "that the final control of presenting and accounting for public money should remain with the grand juries, and recommend that a committee should be appointed in the ensuing session to prepare a bill or bills which should effect a measure so comprehensive as should prove an important benefit to Ireland, and continue to her in an increased degree the advantages she has already derived from her grand jury laws." The present measure is objectionable, because it is not comprehensive; for after so much enquiry, so much expectation excited, so much time elapsed since a well-digested system was promised, unquestionably the public in Ireland had a right to look for a bill which, upon revision of all the existing grand jury laws, should offer one entire code for the regulation of all matters connected with grand jury proceedings, instead of this patchwork, which appears to be hastily brought forward merely to redeem a pledge without even providing for or insuring its own operation. Magistrates possessing a certain qualification of property, are by this bill required to assemble after all the usual business of the quarter sessions is over to put this act in force; but it does not, and could not, compel them to prove a qualification; yet until they do so, they cannot act; thus this grand production may be inoperative; whereas the impannelling of a grand jury at asizes must take place, the manner (if necessary) of enforcing their attendance being provided for.—The present measure does not embrace all the subjects recommended in the report; it omits, for instance, two of great importance; first, to provide for the execution of such a survey as shall establish a more equitable assessment of land; next, to regulate the securities to be given by and remuneration to be made to treasurers and collectors of county money.—This measure is also objectionable inasmuch as it does not adhere to the profession of the committee reports, instead of retaining respect for or preserving a final control to the grand juries it marks the most offensive distrust of the resident gentry; it transfers almost the whole of their powers to a new-created officer, called a surveyor of public works, without whose permission a footpath cannot be mended, nor the grip of a ditch be filled up, and whose acts, the grand juries henceforth will be merely empowered to record. The assistance of a fitly qualified engineer, would, on many occasions, be materially useful. But to give him paramount authority and control over every projected work, whether to mend or to make, to the absolute exclusion of the interference of every resident gentleman, is degrading and intolerable, and far exceeds the proposition of the committee reported 21st of May 1816, which only recommends that he should have the powers now vested in conservators. The duties imposed upon this officer are so numerous and minute, that it will be utterly impracticable for him to perform them in half a county, much less in two counties as is intended, and whilst this officer is made essential to the projecting and execution of every public work, it is notorious that a sufficient number qualified as required are not to be found. However, as this bill cannot have operation until January 1819, there is abundant time to revise it; for although it professes to be in force in October next, yet as the surveyors cannot act until they are sworn at an assizes after they are appointed, and as there will be no assizes after October until Spring, the surveyors,: of course, cannot act at the next January sessions. However, it is necessary to urge upon the attention of the movers of this bill, if persevered in, that they will materially consult the public convenience by haying the presentments considered at Spring instead of January sessions, and by having the presentments fitted at the Summer instead of the Spring assizes. But considering all the circumstances of this bill to which so much amendment is still required, so many Irish members having returned home, may it not more prudently stand over until next session? Above all things, he would warn his right hon. friend, the secretary for Ireland, not to undertake for that government the responsibility of procuring these surveyors, upon whose efficiency, the whole county works of Ireland will depend: there must be failure and disappointment; a share at least of which will be charged to those who can appoint and dismiss these officers. This measure is objectionable because it will lesson the inducements which gentlemen have in attending their assizes, and so far increase the pressing evil of that country, the absence of the landlords. A few magistrates assembled at quarter ses- sions in the different comers of a county, as hereby proposed, will not be less disposed to accommodate each other than grand-jurors are; and, if it is intended that peers and clergymen should mix in the presenting system, the former, jealousies would certainly arise, and with regard to the clergy, he held their profession in such veneration, and felt so anxious for the respectability and dignity of the body, that he did riot desire to see them engaged with laymen in the worldly and interested discussions which necessarily belong to the application of public money, and whether it ought preferably to be laid out in improving the lines of communication through this part or the other part of a county. This bill is farther objectionable on account of the very great additional expense it will inflict by requiring 20,000l. per annum to pay the salaries of the surveyors, besides what must amount to a very large incidental expense in defraying the charges which will be incurred at all the different sessions. Another strong objection occurs, which is to one of the added clauses which proposes to enact absolution to a grand-juror for the non-observance of a part of an oath which he is obliged by law to take; at present a grand juror is obliged to swear "that he will not disclose his fellow jurors counsel or his own"—And the clause in this bill alluded to enacts, "that nothing in the oath of a grand-juror doth extend or can or shall be construed to extend to require or compel the secrecy of such grand-juror in matters relating to making presentments & c.; and that it is and shall be lawful for such grand-juror to disclose any counsel of himself or his fellows, notwithstanding the said oath." It does apppear to be somewhat absurd in legislation to require by one statute that a particular oath shall be taken and observed, and by another statute to enact not only, that he may disobey the first statute, but that it is not lawful to obey it. Was this clause suggested by some English lawyer, on the committee up stairs? It offers both a curious specimen of their opinion of an Irish conscience, and of their mode of legislating for Ireland. Suppose an Irish grand-juror (for argument sake) had a little conscience, and, on account of this clause, refused to be sworn, what might be the consequence? Fine and imprisonment for contempt. Well, if he had no conscience, (as seems by some to be supposed) and took the oath, what might be the consequence? Why, that he might be indicted for perjury under each statute, indictable for not keeping his oath under the former statute, and indictable under this statute if he presumed to keep it; this is really ludicrous. If secrecy, as to the advice, counsel, and opinions of grand-jurors to each other on presentment business, ought not to be kept, repeal the present oath and substitute another to be taken in place of it; but do not let the House be induced to sanction so absurd a mode as herein proposed of arriving at the object of the clause. There are many other objections which exist to the present measure. They might be remedied in some degree on recommitment and the confusion and indefiniteness of parts of this will render a recommitment inevitable. The committee upstairs recommended one excellent alteration which, with the able assistance of a much lamented gentleman (Mr. Horner) now no more, was made laws—to require all bills of indictment to be found on viva voce testimony. For the present let them rest contented with this fruit of their labours; and, as it is perhaps within 10 days of the close of this session, will not the prudential proceeding be, to amend the bill, and reprint it with an understanding that it will not be farther pressed at this time, but in that shape be distributed so as to be discussed by the grand juries at the ensuing assizes in Ireland? After some farther observations, Sir G. Hill concluded with moving, by way of amendment, "That the report be taken into farther consideration, on this day three months."

Mr. Peel

thought it would be infinitely better to reject the measure altogether, than to hold out delusive hopes to Ireland by the formal adjournment of its consideration to another session. The House must be fully prepared to decide upon the merits of this question. Why, then, postpone the decision? The objections of his right hon. friend to the powers which this bill proposed to confer upon the nobility and clergy of Ireland were, in his opinion, quite untenable. For what could be more reasonable than that clergymen, being magistrates and having property, should, as well as the Irish nobility, who had so large a stake in the country, have a right to interpose upon the subject of presentments for public works? As to his right hon. friend's suggestion, that the consideration of presentments should rather take place at the summer than at the spring assizes, he had no objection to accede to it; because a greater proportion of the Irish landlords were likely to be present at the one assizes than at the other. With respect to the objection that the bill went to transfer the whole province of the grand juries to the magistracy, no other power would be given to the magistrates than that of previous inquiry. They were to possess no negative upon any presentment, but merely to accompany it with their opinion, upon which the grand jury would act according to its judgment. He should cordially support the bill because, he was convinced it would do much good; rather than postpone the measure, he should prefer seeing it rejected altogether.

Mr. Ponsonby

cordially concurred in the general principles of the bill. He admitted the importance of carefully controlling the branch of the public expenditure which was vested in the hands of grand juries. In the form of the oath, however, he disliked a statutable declaration, and would rather prefer an alteration in the old oath to any other mode of proceeding. A late excellent friend of his (Mr. Horner) had entered deeply into the state of the grand jury laws in Ireland. One of his bills had been most usefully acted upon in Ireland. He had seen its value in the county which he had the honour to represent. The business of the grand jury was performed with regularity and dispatch, and the common people appeared perfectly satisfied with the form of examination observed in finding bills of indictment. What that bill did in one department of judicial investigation, he was satisfied this bill would do in stopping the jobbing system of civil expenditure. To the clause for the appointment of county surveyors, he strongly objected. He was afraid it would be made a matter of political aptronage, and local purposes thereby effected through the medium of such an office of a very different nature from those which were assigned to it by its constitution. The surveyor was to be in the place of the conservator, who was got rid of because the office was found not to be of the slightest possible use; and this office would he was convinced, be found equally useless, though perhaps in its operation productive of" more harm. As to the qualifications for the individual to fill the office, he certainly ought to have no local connexion, or be a native of the county where his official duties as a surveyor should be stationed. In the previous investigation which the bill enjoined, he entirely concurred, and also in its general principle; but he had a strong objection to the appointment of local surveyors.

Sir N. Colthurst

approved of the alteration in the time of arranging the presentments; but objected to the appointment of surveyors.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

vindicated the general principle of the bill, as calculated to do more good to Ireland, than any measure that had been adopted since the Union. He should be prepared, on the third reading, with a clause to qualify the oath to be taken by grand jurors. With respect to the proposed appointment of county surveyors, he felt assured it never could degenerate into a political job.

Sir H. Parnell

said, it was highly necessary there should be some public officer, whose duty it should be to take care that the money levied by the grand jury was properly expended. The bill was a most important one with respect to the good it would do in Ireland.

Mr. Daly here suggested the propriety of recommitting the bill, to have those alterations made in it, to which no opposition was made. This proposition, after some further discussion was agreed to.

The House having sat till twelve o'clock, the chancellor of the exchequer was about to move the committal of the Extents in aid bill, when the question of adjournment was suddenly put and agreed to, in consequence of the sudden illness of Mr. Ponsonby.