HC Deb 03 March 1817 vol 35 cc850-9
The Solicitor-General

rose to move the second reading of the bill for preventing Seditious Meetings. Before he made his motion, he would briefly explain the reasons for passing this bill, and the different enactments which it contained. To those who thought the report before the House contained no proof of combinations and conspiracies, he deemed it useless to appeal, but to those who had deemed that conspiracies not only existed, but were dangerous and alarming, he should be able to give sufficient reasons for adopting the bill on the table. Of the various means employed by the fomenters of discontent, one of the most efficacious was, to call together a number of persons to inflame them by harangues, to persuade them that the evils arising from the circumstances of the times would be remedied by their application to parliament, and to persuade them that they had a right to force parliament to comply with their demands. These meetings, which might be turned to every mischievous purpose, the bill was intended to control by some regulations precisely of the same kind as those adopted at other critical times. There were some meetings which it was not intended to touch by the bill. These were meetings called by lord lieutenants, Custos Rotulorum, or sheriffs of the county, or any riding, or division of the county, or the mayor, or alderman, or any head officer of any corporation or division of a corporation. Such meetings were not touched nor regulated by the bill, and it would be thought that if there were any grievances, real or imagined, the people would never want means of expressing their feelings on it through the medium of such meetings. But there was another opening left to petitioning, for on a requisition being signed by seven resident householders, a meeting might at any time or place be convened. There were other provisions of the bill upon which he felt it his duty to enlarge. A meeting when convened according to a requisition signed by seven resident householders, would still be liable to certain regulations. The justices who attended at such meeting would be authorized to declare it an unlawful assembly, if it proceeded to discuss any subject tending to alter matters of state, without the authority of king and parliament. It was evident that any such discussions could only have a mischievous effect. Another regulation was, that any person propounding matters of that sort, or propounding any seditious matter, might be taken up for so doing. All those regulations were precisely similar to what had been introduced into the bill of 1796. The first object of the measure, therefore, was, to prevent any meetings or assemblies of above fifty persons, except such meetings of corporate bodies, &c. as he had already mentioned, and except Such as were called together upon a notice signed by seven householders. In the committee, however, it was his intention to propose a clause, which he should mention now, as it partly involved a new subject matter, though in no respect contrary to the avowed spirit and purpose of the bill. The object of his clause would be to prevent those meetings, so convened by seven householders, from being adjourned, and to prevent them from being held at any other time or place than what should be at first specified, by way of adjournment. If that evil were not guarded against, it might be contended, that the original meeting being legally called, an adjourned meeting would be equally legal; but he need hardly say how dangerous such a practice might become, by keeping such large bodies of men in a state of fancied continuity; nor how, if adopted, it would substantially defeat the present bill. The clause, therefore, would declare all meetings to be illegal which were adjourned to any other time or place than that mentioned in the notice, and such person or persons as proposed such adjournment liable to a penalty. A second object of the bill would be to prevent the existence of debating societies, lecture rooms, reading rooms, &c. for admission to which money was received. A similar measure was enacted in 1796; but that law was not found so explicit as to comprehend all societies for discussions, debates, and lectures, it was, therefore, altered in 1799, but as the offence, though more clearly defined, was only made an offence within the meaning of the statute of the 36th of the king, when the 36th expired, the 39th, so far as that part of it was to be considered, expired also. He should further observe, that the 39th of the king had for its object to suppress by name certain societies, whose existence was regarded as detrimental to the state; it also declared other societies to be unlawful which were constituted in a particular way, such as imposing oaths, engagements, tests, declarations, &c. or having branches, divisions, employing delegates, &c. And all those enactments were still in force, but they did not touch the evil as it existed in the societies that were now formed. The latter had no branches, divisions, or separate parts, but they had the same pernicious effects, though they were professed to be distinct and independent clubs, for they employed delegates or missionaries to diffuse their doctrines throughout the country. He should therefore propose to adopt that part of the act of 1796, which declared unlawful all societies that had delegates or missionaries for the purpose of confirming others in the principles they professed, and to make them liable to the same penalties as were enacted by that law. Another object of the bill would be to suppress a particular society or societies, calling themselves the Spenceans, or Spencean philanthropists. If ever there was a society, the doctrines of which were utterly subversive of every well regulated state, subversive of all property, order, and good government, it was that society. At the present moment there was an immense number of persons who belonged to it; and therefore, without inquiring whether it employed delegates or not, it was condemned by the very doctrines which it promulgated, and was rendered as unlawful as any corresponding society that ever existed. With respect to the employing of delegates or missionaries, he was aware that many societies of the most exemplary kind did so; he believed the Quakers had persons who visited their different communities in that character, though under a different appellation, and therefore it would be a provision in the act, to except from its operation all societies constituted for charitable or religious purposes. The hon. and learned gentleman concluded with moving the second reading of the bill, after expressing his firm conviction of its necessity in the present alarming crisis.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, that as there would be several stages of the bill in which its principle and provisions might be discussed, he should abstain from entering upon them at present. It was so framed, indeed, and so mixed up with two other acts of parliament, that it was difficult to ascertain what its principle was. He had no objection to that part which provided that seven resident householders should sign a requisition, because he did not think it would throw any real impediment in the way of the constitutional right of petitioning the throne and parliament. But there were some clauses to which he greatly objected. He thought, however, it would be better to let the bill go into a committee, and when they fully understood its provisions, they would then be able thoroughly to investigate its principle. He would merely suggest that there were two clauses in the act of 1799, which ought to be adopted, one from policy, and the other from consistency. The first related to the indemnifying a person against all acts which he might have committed as a member of those societies, previously to the passing of the law. Such a provision would operate as an inducement to many to quit and renounce those unlawful assemblies. The second referred to a limitation of time in which actions could be brought against an individual. They had already protected the magistrates in that respect, and for the sake of consistency they ought to secure the subject.

Mr. C. Calvert

said, he should certainly oppose the second reading of the bill. There had been a meeting that very day in the borough of Southwark, originally convened for the purpose of petitioning against the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, bat the rapidity with which that measure was hurried through, rendered it unavailing. They came, however, to a unanimous vote upon the propriety of petitioning parliament against passing any other laws for taking away or abridging the liberty of the subject. That petition he should present to-morrow, and coinciding as he did in its prayer, he did not know how he could avoid taking the sense of the House upon the bill.

Sir F. Burdett

said, he felt it impossible to avoid entering his protest against the measure at its outset. It was a direct infringement upon the bill of rights, which secured to the poorest man in the kingdom the right of petitioning upon the grievances of the country. But if the present law passed, he could not exercise that right, unless he found seven householders who would sign a requisition. He was persuaded the chief cause of the bill was on account of the number of petitions which the people were sending to that House. The people complained so loud that members, as they did not choose to listen to their prayer, were resolved to stifle their voice by this code of despotism. He regarded the present bill as the most objectionable of all, because it attacked the right of petitioning. Notwithstanding all that was said of disturbances, yet it was a fact, that innumerable petitions (there were now above 600 lying on the floor, signed by nearly a million of persons) had been drawn up at meetings where order and regularity prevailed, to a degree that was really surprising. He believed that no other country in the world could exhibit a population, suffering under such accumulated distresses, where so much forbearance and temper were manifested. Their conduct took away every pretext for infringing the constitution; and he was surprised that the absurdity of the Spencean doctrines did not render gentlemen ashamed of expresing any apprehensions from such a cause.

Lord William Russell

conceived it to be his duty, as a representative, bound to defend the purses and liberties of his constituents, to enter his protest against the present measure. He would cheerfully give to the government all the security that was consistent with the principles of the constitution; but he considered that the House had already, by suspending the law of Habeas Corpus and trial by jury, given them as much power as the Romans gave to a dictator, when they directed him to provide ne quid detrimenti, respublica capiat.

Mr. Law

contended, that so far from taking away the right of petitioning, the bill in question tended to give that right greater security and effect, by guarding against tumultuary and seditious proceedings. He would suggest, however, to the law officers, a provision which he thought it might be desirable to enact. It was extremely possible that combinations might be entered into, to require meetings in different parts of a county, at one and the same time, with a view to distract the civil and military force. In order to prevent that it might be provided, that persons anxious to have a meeting convened, should communicate their desire to the magistrates, who should be compelled to call the meeting within a specified time (suppose seven days) under a heavy penalty.

Sir John Newport

expressed his determination to postpone his opinion on the bill until it should be committed. He trusted that whatever clauses honourable gentlemen intended to propose would be submitted in that stage. As the bill now stood, it was confessedly an imperfect measure; but, after the committal, he most hope that the bill would not be varied in after stages.

The Attorney-General

observed, that the promoters of the bill felt it to be their duty, as well as their inclination, to bring forward all the clauses they meant to propose at once, and that they would have nothing to add in the committee. The hon. and learned gentleman then entered into similar explanations of the nature and tendency of the measure as had been afforded by the solicitor-general.

Mr. Calvert

said, that not wishing to set up his own judgment against the opinion of both sides of the House, he would not insist on a division.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, that he wished to have some explanation from the attorney-general respecting the meaning and operation of that clause in the bill, which,; as it appeared to him, would prevent persons from resorting to any rooms for the purpose of reading books, pamphlets, and the daily journals. As he read this clause, he conceived that it went to prevent persons from resorting to reading rooms and circulating libraries, for the purpose of reading newspapers and books, which would be a most unwarrantable oppression of the subject. In the town in which he lived, there was a reading room, which was frequently attended by the most re- spectable persons; and yet, under this clause, the person who kept it, and the parties who resorted to it (unless, indeed, it were regularly licensed, which appeared to him to be a very arbitrary mode of collecting money) would be liable to be prosecuted. But this was not his only objection to this bill; he objected to the preamble, which stated, "whereas assemblies of divers persons, collected for the purpose, or under the pretence, of deliberating on public grievances, and of agreeing on petitions, complaints, remonstrances, or other addresses to the Prince Regent, or to both Houses of Parliament, have of late been made use of to serve the ends of factious and seditious persons, to the great danger and disturbance of the public peace, have produced acts of riot, tumult, and disorder, and may become the means of producing confusion and calamities in the nation." Now, what was this but a libel on the whole people of England? It asserted that which was not true; for he maintained, from all that he had seen or heard on the subject, that in none of the meetings held for the purpose of petitioning had any acts of riot, tumult, or disorder taken place. The riot in the metropolis, on which the secret committee had founded a great part of their report, did not commence in Spa-fields, but was committed by some disorderly persons whose object was totally unconnected with the purposes for which meetings had been called in almost every part of the kingdom.

Lord Cochrane

hoped the House would pause before they gave ministers the power to suppress all the public sources of reading and information. He adverted to what had been mentioned in the report respecting the disposition of the people at Glasgow, and begged leave to read an extract of a letter from Mr. M'Arthur (whose name had been introduced on a former occasion) on that subject. It stated that people were persecuted by the spies of government. One gentleman had been seized in his bed at one in the morning, charged by a malicious spy with disaffection, and having arms in his house. He was thrown into a dungeon and kept for two nights; but when examined, he was liberated, the whole being false. The letter added that the reign of terror was begun. And that the people were indignant at the practices that were resorted to ensnare the, unwary, as the above was a plot of the creatures in the pay of government. The meetings alluded to at Glasgow were not political, but merely for obtaining parochial relief, which was not obtained in Scotland as in England. He was afraid the intention of all these bills was, the destruction of the press, as no man would be safe after they had passed; for if he went into a box in a coffeehouse, and gave a free opinion, a waiter might inform against him, on whose oath he would be committed. This was really not a state in which the people deserved to be placed. The lord mayor had, he understood, stated at the common council, that he himself had furnished two-thirds of the contents of the green bag, and he did not believe in the serious opinions that had been entertained about them. It might be very convenient for ministers to divert the attention of the public from those objects which were really injurious to the country, and which struck at the very roots of trade and commerce. But he trusted the good sense of the House would see through this. He read further extracts from the above-mentioned letter, which stated, that the people of Glasgow had published a declaration, in which they stated, that they had seen with grief the reports laid before parliament, which as far as they related to them, contained not a shadow of truth. They had never heard even the name of the Spenceans till they had seen it in the newspapers. The lord mayor (his lordship continued) had estimated the whole number of these visionaries as not exceeding one hundred, and there was plenty of room in Bedlam for them all. The noble lord concluded by urging the necessity of full discussion, and referred to the observation of the attorney-general on a former night, that he had been sixteen hours engaged in his professional duties before he came to that House to give his opinion on the measure before them. Surely it became members to consider the subject more maturely, before they came to decide upon it by their votes.

Mr. Baring

said, he would not object to this measure if a clear and decided case could be made out for its necessity. He conceived, however, that every gentleman in the House was as able to judge of the state of the country as every member of the committee; and certainly, as far as his knowledge extended, there was no occasion whatever for invading the liberties of the people. He had not the least doubt that some blasphemous publications had been brought before the committee; bat he could not for a moment believe that such publications prevailed throughout the country. There never was a time within his recollection, when there existed a stronger religious feeling and veneration for those sacred subjects, the detestation of which seemed by the report to be one of the grounds of these proceedings. This was a period in which enthusiasm seemed to have taken hold of the minds of men, and a disposition had sprung up in the lower classes to dive into unknowable mysteries, and to puzzle themselves with what they had better leave alone. As to the not which followed the meeting at Spa-fields, a very inconsiderable part of the population of the metropolis had been concerned in it; half a dozen people got down from a waggon, and very few joined them on their way to the city. With respect to the Spencean plan, he had never once heard of it till he saw the report: and, even then, he knew so little of the founder of that sect, that he thought he had been a Mr. Spence who wrote a pamphlet a few years ago on foreign commerce. Connecting these circumstances together, he was decidedly of opinion, that there had been very great exaggeration in the apprehensions of the committee and of his majesty's ministers. He could not but think, that all the plots or plans, or whatever they were to be called, might have been put down, if left alone, with perfect security to the country. It did not appear that there was any intention of opposing the bill going into a committee, and therefore, he should not deliver his opinions upon it at present; but he could not suffer it to pass even thus far, without stating that it contained, some provisions, which, if ultimately carried, would give ministers a discretionary power over the most harmless intercourse of society.

Mr. Wynn

, as he had not been a member of the secret committee, had had no opportunity of knowing the nature of the evidence on which they had founded the report; but from reading that report, he had no hesitation in believing that the danger extended to a much greater length than was generally thought. How the lord mayor could have searched through the contents of the sealed bag, and have known the evidence that the members had before them was to him a mystery. The report did not state those societies to be prevalent over every part of the kingdom, but over a very great part. He could not do otherwise than give his confidence to those who framed the report; as it was pot possible, nor would it have been justifiable for them to give the evidence. He would not, however, pledge himself to give his support to the whole of these measures, particularly to those that applied to reading-rooms and libraries, which he thought went farther than any thing that was ever in the contemplation of any man before. The hon. gentleman adverted to the nature of the not act, which was as old as almost any law in existence. It made the hundred liable to the damage committed by rioters; but it had been decided that damages could not be recovered unless it was proved that it was the intent of the rioters to destroy the House. In the not on the 2d of December, one person had his house entered and robbed of property to the amount of 1,000l. and he could gain no redress whatever. He therefore suggested, whether it would not be advisable, to extend redress incases of riots of all descriptions.

Lord Rancliffe

differed from the hon. gentleman who spoke last, and thought the lord mayor competent authority as to the validity of the documents that passed through his hands. He agreed with the chief magistrate in thinking that there never was a green bag which gave birth to so foolish a child.

The bill was then read a second time, and ordered to be committed to-morrow.