HC Deb 21 March 1817 vol 35 cc1220-2

Sir S. Romilly moved the second reading of the bill for repealing the act passed in the last session for the preservation of Game.

Mr. Bankes

said, that as another bill (sir E. Knatchbull's) was then pending in the House, which met with general approbation, and had the same object in view as the present one, he thought that the measure of the hon. and learned gentleman should be suspended, until the other came under their consideration. He would, therefore, move as an amendment, that the bill be read a second time on Monday se'nnight.

Sir S. Romilly

said, that this bill was intended to repeal one which had been passed last year, in order to punish persons going out at night with arms in their hands to steal game. In its application, however, the bill had been made to punish persons who had been taken with nothing about them but nets, for the purpose of ensnaring game with seven years transportation, which punishment had only been intended to meet the other offence. He did not object to that offence being punished with transportation, and what he had in view would be in a great measure accomplished by the bill brought in by the hon. member for Kent, but that bill could not now be passed till the next quarter sessions were over. But for this circumstance he should not be anxious to press the bill now under consideration. When, however, he reflected, that if the subject were suffered to lie over till after the next quarter sessions, many persons, comparatively innocent, would probably suffer under the existing law, he thought it of importance that this bill should pass without loss of time. He had heard of several cases of great hardship which had occurred under the act now in force-cases, in which persons, whose offences were not of an aggravated nature, had been sentenced to transportation, partly on account of the character they had previously borne. In some cases, its operation had been peculiarly hard on those tried under it, as it had come upon them like an ex post facto law. The late Mr. Horner had been said to have approved of the bill now in force. To any person who knew that most respected individual, it must seem, when they were told this, that he had, on the occasion referred to, forgot for a time those principles which were nearest to his heart; for among all his good qualities there was no one by which his lamented friend was more distinguished than an anxious wish to protect the people against any measure of a character that at all approached tyranny. He, however, knew most positively that Mr. Horner had disapproved of the bill passed in the last session; for he (Mr. Horner) had attended with him night after night, for the purpose of opposing it. They were prevented from doing so by the circumstance of its being found impossible to get to the bill, from their being 30 or 40 orders a day before the House, while they came down for the purpose he had mentioned, and at last they had given up their opposition, as the lion, member who had brought in the bill agreed to strike out that clause which they considered most mischievous in its tendency. As originally brought in, the bill left persons taking at night without arms, but with nets and wires about them, liable to be transported for seven years, without a trial by jury, on a conviction before two magistrates. The omission of this clause was the cause of the bill passing without opposition from Mr. Horner, as, though still objectionable, he considered it to be much better than it had been. The game laws, as they at present stood, had a tendency to multiply crimes. They had the effect of exciting a ferocious spirit, not only among the lower classes, but also among those in the higher walks of life; as was seen by the use made of spring guns, and other engines of death, or of great bodily harm, now placed in inclosed grounds and woods, from which so many accidents occurred. The act now in force went to make offenders more desperate, as had recently been seen in the case of some poachers taken in the North of England, who, when informed that the offence they had committed subjected them to the punishment of transportation, immediately exclaimed, "if they had known that, they would not have been taken so easily." This was the consequence of a law of such severity; those against whom it was directed thought they might as well take the chance of a desperate resistance. Under all the circumstances of the case, he hoped the House would suffer the bill to be now read a second time.

Sir C. Monck

said, he had committed the persons just alluded to, and they certainly had appeared very much surprised when informed of the punishment which they might expect, and had declared that if they had known such was the penalty they had incurred, they would not have been so easily taken. Under the present law, transportation did not necessarily follow on conviction. It was left in the breast of the magistrates to take this course, or to sentence the offender to imprisonment. He, however, would willingly consent to an alteration being made in the law, to define the different shades of offences, and the several degrees of punishment by which they were to be met, so as to leave as little as possible to the discretion of the magistrates. To repeal the present act would be to revive the Joddrell act. Of this he did not approve, and he had a great objection to the bill brought in by the hon. member for Kent. He thought a bill between the two might be beneficial, but as he wished the passing of the present bill to be at all events deferred, he should vote for the amendment.

Mr. Huskisson

should vote for the postponement of the bill. He was unwilling that it should pass before the ensuing quarter sessions were over. The present law, if its application were looked at, would not be found cruel absurd, and unjust; and there were many laws which left the magistrates as much room for the exercise of their discretion, as could be claimed under that which was now made the subject of complaint. He had been surprised to hear it spoken of as an ex post facto law. Such a character did not belong to it. He considered it not a law for the preservation of game, but a police law; and, when the bill brought in by the member for Kent came again before the House, he thought it would be as well to leave out the word "game" altogether, and make the act against all who went out at night in armed bodies, with any unlawful object in view.

The House divided: For the second reading, 14; for the amendment, 30; majority, 16; the second reading of the bill was of course postponed.