HC Deb 02 May 1817 vol 36 cc115-20
Mr. Cooper

said, that as there had not been any favourable opportunity of discussing the bill hitherto, owing to the absence of the Irish members, he had intended entering into the measure somewhat at large, previous to moving for the Speaker's leaving, the chair to go into a committee of the whole House upon the bill. In that committee it had been his intention to move, that they should fill up the blanks, and adopt such amendments as might have been suggested; to have proposed the reporting the bill in order to its being re-printed, with the further view of its being re-committed and discussed, when the measure would have been fairly, and fully before the House. However, in consequence of suggestions which had been made to him, by persons of whose judgment he had a higher opinion than of his own, he was now disposed to take another course. Before he mentioned what that course was, he would shortly advert (in consequence of a petition just presented against the bill from the county of Cork) to the situation of that county. Twenty-three gentlemen, or it might be twelve, in the midst of all the bustle and business of an assize, without any previous examination to guide them, take upon themselves to levy money, to an indefinite amount, for various purposes, the items of which were almost innumerable; he conscientiously thought that, with a view of doing justice, they might just as well put the presentments and applications into a hat, and draw out such number as they thought proper. As to the amount of the levies, to show their enormous increase, he stated that he held a document in his hand which showed, that in the four years from 1807 to 1810 inclusive, the levies amounted to something under 48,000l. per annum: whereas, in the four succeeding years, the average per annum was 70,500l., being an increase of 22,500l. per annum; he also adverted to the enormous sums presented for stationary, and other matters; but besides all this, this great county (he might call it the Yorkshire of Ireland) was subject to an abominable inequality of assessment, county charges being levied by plough lands, and plough land varying from nearly 2,000 to 100 acres, and the same sum being levied on each; and yet this was the county in which so many enormous abuses existed, which petitioned against any alteration of the existing laws! As to the bill, it was suggested to him, that it would be better to withdraw it in order to its being divided, and to embody the new provisions suggested, so as not at present to repeal the existing laws: whatever he might think of it, to this proposition he was disposed to assent but he did not, nor would not; pledge himself to act upon it; on the contrary, he thought at present he saw insurmountable difficulties.

Mr. Abercrombie

felt so deep an interest in the labours of the committee in question, of which he had been a member, that he could not behold a cessation of their labours in this manner without considerable pain. He could readily imagine that there must be a great difficulty in bringing in a bill, the object of which was no less than the repeal of the whole mass of the Irish grand jury laws. So far as related to the repeal of the particular and prominent parts of the laws in question, and then substituting others in their place, he could have no objection. This subject was really one of greater importance than could at first sight be supposed; those who only knew the state of the grand jury laws in England could form no opinion of their operation in Ireland.—In the latter country they were severe and oppressive; they affected the comforts, nay the morals of the people, and all who had at heart the interest of the inhabitants of that unfortunate country, must wish to see the present system altered without delay. He therefore heard with regret that the hon. member, whose labours in this work were so constant and exemplary, should feel himself in a situation of abandoning the matter at the present moment. It would be a great public calamity, indeed, if an impression went abroad, that after a committee had sat on the subject for nearly two sessions, they should find themselves without the means of suggesting some practical remedy for an admitted evil of this extensive nature. He did, however, hope and trust that the matter would not be permitted to rest here, that the principles of the report of the committee would be acted upon, and that the united parliament would give a pledge to the people of Ireland of their determination to pro- ceed at once to remedy a notorious abuse in the existing laws of the country. He should repeat his entreaty, that they would now give such a pledge to the country.

Mr. Prittie

regretted that the bill was given up by the hon. gentleman. He feared that if it were withdrawn, the House would never see so perfect a one again.

Mr. Ponsonby

said, that he never listened to any proposition with more pain than he did to that just made by the hon. member, because he was sure that much good could be made out of the bill: it might be rendered very useful to Ireland, where they all admitted the evil was sore and pressing, and such as imperatively demanded a remedy. If the hon. member thus abandoned the bill, he could not foresee that any other member was likely to take it up with the same spirit and effect. The hon. member had laboured sedulously and honestly: he stood quite clear of any imputation of having a private object, or a job in view; his intention was evidently to relieve the people of Ireland from the oppression under which they groaned, by the abominable corruption that was practised under the grand jury laws in that country. The hon. member must indeed feel mortified, after producing as perfect a bill as the nature of the case would at first admit of, to be thus compelled to abandon it. He hoped, however, that something would be done to get rid of this tissue of peculation and oppression.

Mr. Peel

admitted, that a deep evil would indeed arise if the abandonment of the present measure were to imply a want of intention to remedy the evils complained of—evils, that he was ready to declare had existence, and ought to be remedied. He cordially concurred in the wish that his hon. friend would give a pledge to the House of bringing the subject again before parliament in the course of the present session. On the whole, however, he could not regret the abandonment of the bill which had been introduced, for he much questioned the policy of repealing the fabric of the laws, until a sure and effective substitute was first provided in their place. It was most impolitic to commence the reform by abrogating the existing system. It would, in his opinion, be a far better course to point out the distinct evils where they stood in the frame of the laws, and at once apply specific and distinct remedies for them. It had been on a former occasion said, that the blanks of the bill ought to be filled up; where was the necessity for taking that course, if the general opinion was against the expediency of a general repeal? The most convenient and most effective course was that pursued by his hon. friend, who could in a fresh bill embody the practical points of the present one, and apply them to the specific evils, the existence of which was admitted by all. He hoped his hon. friend would now pledge himself to pursue this course during the present session.

Mr. Courtenay

felt that there was an absolute necessity to make a general and complete alteration in these Jaws, nor could he see any difficulty in pursuing the course which his hon. friend was now about to abandon. It was quite clear that a more minute examination of the presentment accounts was necessary, and that a string of clauses should be provided for that purpose. This of itself would be a great alteration in the present system, and when the subject came fully before them in one general shape, they could better say what parts should be suffered to remain, and what should be abrogated. This would be a better course than to take the thing in parts, and perhaps bring the ameliorating laws in direct collision with each other.

Mr. Leslie Foster

agreed that the Irish grand jury laws required substantial reformation, and was glad to see that the only prevailing difference of opinion was, as to the mode of effecting the object. In this view he thought the abandonment of the measure salutary, as it would enable the hon. member to bring in a more practical and specific measure during the present session. He would briefly call the attention of the House to what had been already done on this subject. The whole of the Irish grand jury laws had been early last 3'ear referred to a select committee, who embodied in their resolutions upon them six or eight distinct propositions. The hon. gentleman to whom the preparation of the bill was consigned, unfortunately embraced a wider scope of action than he was strictly authorized to do by the committee. His bill might be divided into three parts; 1st, the introduction of the new matter to be adopted; 2dly, the mode of re-enacting the new laws, and the explanatory qualifications that were to accompany them; and 3dly, the fresh unauthorized matter which he himself introduced. These laws were passed in the 36th of the king; they were extremely complex and voluminous, having more than 100 sections, and a still greater number of regulations. The terms of these sections and regulations, were not followed by the hon. gentleman; he extended them, and, in fact, had introduced a sort of framing that would give rise to endless questions among judges and jurors.

Sir John Newport

said, that if the withdrawal of the bill implied the abandonment of a desire to seek a remedy, then, indeed would the people of Ireland have to endure the infliction of the greatest possible evil; for unless the present system were rooted out with a strong hand, and every idea of temporising banished, the system of grand juries must fall to the ground; and so it ought, if it only lived to inflict oppression. The evil in this case fell on the poor peasantry, who were the occupiers of the land; the proprietors felt very little of the evil; in this respect they materially differed from the landed proprietors in this country, whose leases were given for so short a duration of time. He doubted much whether any thing short of a total repeal would answer. Were the Case that of a new set of laws, in which all the parts acted together, there would be little difficulty in the case; but here there was a great deal which could not be separated or got at by any thing short of a total repeal. He was, however, so desirous of getting the House with unanimity to bring forward some measure to remedy this evil, that he would forego his own opinion, and be contented if the following leading points were attended to in the new regulations; first, a special care that the public purse was fairly and honestly made out; secondly, that it was fairly accounted for in the expenditure; and thirdly, that the money was vested in hands perfectly secure. The want of the last was bitterly felt in Ireland. Since the discussion of last summer no less than three treasurers had become bankrupts, and new levies were made on the unfortunate peasantry to repair the deficiencies thus occasioned, because government had not provided sufficient guards for the public purse. So long as these treasurers Were likely to have the use of the public money their creditors never touched them but the moment it was suspected that parliament would interfere in the matter, then their creditors became clamorous, and in the end made them bankrupts. The levies were made on the public soon after the cess, and then the treasurers made what use they pleased of the money until the ensuing assizes; every sort of jobbing and trafficking was then carried on, to the ultimate injury of the community.

Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald

approved of Mr. Cooper's course. A new proposition would, he trusted, soon be made, which would disentangle the consideration from the mass of matter in which it would be mixed if the present course were still farther pursued. All concurred in the necessity of an essential reform; many, however, differed, not only as to the points of reformation, but also as to the remedy proposed. He hoped his hon. friend would still keep the subject alive, and introduce it in such a manner as would be most likely to effect the object which all had in view. It could not be in better hands.

Sir F. Flood

said, that as the present bill was about to be abandoned, it would be unnecessary for him to enter into the merits or demerits of a folio volume of such complex and multifarious matter. He had instructions from the grand jury of his county to watch the bill, and he had done so. They thought that the bill would not effect its professed object; at the same time they admitted, that the laws ought to be amended; they were ready, and so was he, to go hand in hand for that purpose There was one thing in the new bill, against which he would protest; he meant, the creation of 13 or 14 new offices. When the people far and near called for retrenchment, this would be a serious consideration in a country already too much oppressed. The bill went four times beyond the instructions of the committee.

Mr. Cooper

assured the worthy baronet, that there were only two offices created by the bill—the one a surveyor, and the other a chief constable. He thanked the House for the manner in which his exertions in this business had been mentioned; he would return to the subject most certainly, but he could not at the moment pledge himself to a specific course of proceeding.

The committal of the bill was then put off for six months.