HC Deb 27 February 1818 vol 37 cc679-90

The COMMITTEE OF SECRECY, to whom the several Papers, which were presented (sealed up) to the House, by Lord Viscount Castlereagh, on the 3d day of February, by command of his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, were referred, and who were directed to examine the matters thereof, and report the same, as they should appear to them, to the House;—Have agreed upon the following Report:

The first object of your committee, in examining the papers which have been referred to their consideration, has been, to form a just estimate of the internal state of the country, from the period when the Second Report of the Secret Committee, in the last session of parliament, was presented, to the present time.

The insurrection, which broke out in the night between the 9th and 10th of June, on the borders of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, shortly before the close of the sitting of that committee, was the last open attempt to carry into effect the revolution, which bad so long been the object of an extended conspiracy. The arrest of some of the principal promoters of these treasonable designs, in different parts of the country, had deranged the plans, and distracted the councils, of the disaffected; occasioned delays and hesitation in the appointment of the day for a simultaneous effort; and finally, left none, but the most infatuated, to hazard the experiment of rebellion.

The suppression of this insurrection (following the dispersion of the partial rising which had taken place the night before in the neighbourhood of Huddersfield), the apprehension and committal of the leaders for trial in the regular course of law, under the charge of high treason, and the detention of several others of the most active delegates and agitators, under the authority of the act of the last session, frustrated all further attempts at open violence. But the spirit of disaffection does not appear to have been subdued; disappointment was frequently expressed by the disaffected, at the failure of an enterprize, from the success of which a relief from all distress and grievances had been confidently predicted; and the projected revolution was considered as not less certain, for being somewhat longer delayed.

In the course of the succeeding month, bills of indictment for high treason were found against forty-six persons, at the assizes at Derby; which must have tended still farther to check the progress of sedition, by apprizing the wavering of the danger to which they were exposed, and over-awing the remainder of the more determined leaders. On the trials which took place in October, twenty-three were either convicted by the verdict of the jury, or pleaded guilty; against twelve, who were mostly young men, and related to some of the prisoners already convicted, the law officers of the Crown declined offering any evidence. The remaining eleven had succeeded in absconding, and have not yet been apprehended. The result of these trials, and the examples which followed, seem to have had the effect which might be expected, of striking a terror into the most violent of those engaged in the general conspiracy; whilst the lenity shown to the deluded, was gratefully felt by the individuals themselves, and restored quiet and subordination to the district, which had been the principal scene of disturbance.

In the course of the autumn, a gradual reduction in the price of provisions, and still more an increased demand for labour, in consequence of a progressive improvement in the state of agriculture, as well as of trade and manufactures in some of their most important branches, afforded the means of subsistence and employment to numbers of those, who had been taught to ascribe all the privations to which they were unfortunately subjected, to defects in the existing constitution.

Your committee see fresh cause to be convinced of the truth of the opinion expressed by the first secret committee, which sat in the last year, of the general good disposition and loyalty of the great body of the people; and they advert with pleasure to the confirmation afforded by the late trials at Derby, of the testimony borne in the report of the last committee, to the exemplary conduct of the mass of the population, in the country through which the insurrection passed. They have no doubt, that the numbers of those who were either pledged, or prepared to engage in actual insurrection, has generally been much exaggerated by the leaders of the disaffected, from the obvious policy, both of giving importance to themselves, and of encouraging their followers. It is however, impossible to calculate the extent to which any insurrection, not successfully opposed in its outset, might have grown in its progress through a population, in a state of reduced employment, of distress, and of agitation. In such a state of things, opportunity would, no doubt, have been afforded to active and plausible demagogues, for seducing into acts of violence and outrage, persons altogether unaware of the nature and consequences of the measures to which they were called upon to lend their assistance; that these consequences would have involved the destruction of the lives and property of the loyal and well-affected, in the event of any decided, though temporary, success of the insurgents, is sufficiently evident, from the designs which have in some instances been proved.

It was therefore the duty of the magistracy, and of the government, not only to prepare the means of effectual resistance to open force; but, where they had the opportunity, to defeat the danger in its origin, by apprehending the leaders and instigators of conspiracy. Your committee indulge the hope, that the hour of delusion, among those who have been misled into disaffection, may be passing away; and that some, even of the deluders themselves, may have seen, and repented of their error. But your committee would deceive the House, if they were not to state it as their opinion, that it will still require all the vigilance of government, and of the magistracy, to maintain the tranquillity, which has been restored. It will no less require a firm determination among the moral and reflecting members of the community, of whatever rank and station they may be, to lend the aid of their influence and example, to counteract the effect of those licentious and inflammatory publications, which are poured forth throughout the country, with a profusion heretofore unexampled.

Your committee have hitherto applied their observations to the lately disturbed districts in the country. In adverting to the state of the metropolis, during the same period, they have observed, with concern, that a small number of active and infatuated individuals have been unremittingly engaged, in arranging plans of insurrection, in endeavouring to foment disturbances that might lead to it, and in procuring the means of active operations, with the ultimate view of subverting all the existing establishments of the country, and substituting some form of revolutionary government in their stead. Your committee however, have the satisfaction to find, that, notwithstanding the desperation and confidence of the leaders, the proselytes that have been gained to their cause are not numerous. The sensible improvement in the comforts and employment of the labouring part of the community, has tended to diminish at once the motives of discontent, and the means of seduction. The mischief does not appear to have extended into any other rank of life, than that of the persons referred to in the first report of the Secret Committee of last year, nor to have received countenance from any individuals of higher condition.

Eager as these agitators are, to avail themselves of any popular assemblage, still more, of any occasion that might happen to arise of popular discontent, and capable as they appear, from their own declarations, to be of any act of atrocity, your committee see no reason to apprehend that the vigilance of the police, and the unrelaxed superintendence of government, may not, under the present circumstances of the country, be sufficient to prevent them from breaking out into any serious disturbance of the public peace.

The attention of your committee has next been directed to the documents, which have been laid before them, relative to the apprehension of the several persons suspected of being engaged in treasonable practices, who have been detained under the authority of the acts of the last session. They have examined the charges upon which the several detentions have been founded, and find them, in all instances, substantiated by depositions on oath. Your committee have no hesitation in declaring, that the discretion thus intrusted to his majesty's government, appears to them to have been temperately and judiciously exercised, and that the government would, in their opinion have failed in its duty, as guardian of the peace, and tranquillity of the realm, if it had not exercised, to the extent which it has done, the powers entrusted to it by the legislature. Of the thirty-seven persons, which is the whole number of those who were finally committed, one was discharged on the 4th of July, one on the 31st on account of illness, ten on the 12th of No- vember, fourteen on the 3d of December, one on the 22d of December, six on the 29th of December, and three on the 20th of January, and one died in prison. From the circumstances of the country, as laid before your committee, and as publicly notorious during the period in which those imprisonments took place, your committee see no reason to doubt that the detention of the several prisoners, was governed by the same sound discretion, which, as your committee have already stated, appears to have been exercised in apprehending them. The whole of the arduous duties confided to the executive government, appears to your committee to have been discharged with as much moderation and lenity, as was compatible with the paramount object of general security.—27th February 1818.

The Report having been read, lord Castlereagh moved, that it do lie on the table, and be printed.

Mr. Tierney

wished to put two questions to the noble lord,—when he proposed the report should be taken into consideration,—and what measure, if any, he intended to found upon it?

Lord Castlereagh

said, that as to the first question, he apprehended it was not usual for ministers to be required to state their intentions upon the presenting of such a report: with regard to the second question, he could only state that it was not his intention to propose any day when the report should be taken into consideration.

Mr. Tierney

professed himself very much puzzled to find out the noble lord's reason for moving that it be printed. The noble lord had declared, that the report was not to be taken into consideration by the House; and if so, why it was worth while to print it passed a reasonable man's comprehension. The noble lord was quite right, perhaps, in his avowed opinion of the report; for it was really nothing but a jumble of nonsense. Every syllable that had been foretold had been verified: all the absurdities that satire had invented as likely to form part of this precious document were here embodied in writing, for the amusement of the country. Who the author of this valuable production was, it might be hard to say; but for any information it contained, it would have been much better if the Derby trials had been taken in short-hand, and presented to the House. It was no- thing but the old story. And well it might be, for what else had ministers to offer? There was, however, one material point, and with the other side that might constitute the chief value of the report, namely, that it was a complete whitewashing of the administration: it was related, not to the internal state of the country, but to the internal state of the administration. The whole object of it was to induce the House to believe without evidence (or rather with evidence all the other way), that ministers had exercised the powers intrusted to them with the utmost moderation and humanity. Would the House take that fact for granted, merely because it was so asserted in the curious specimen of composition just read? For what purposes had the committee been appointed? First, to defend the conduct of the former committee; and, next, to defend the conduct of ministers. Very properly for such a task, the members of the former committee, and the members of the administration, had been selected. What could be better when a man was accused, than to constitute him his own judge? Yet, after all, what had they to say? Nothing; but that the Derby trials had taken place; and that, if an insurrection had begun and proceeded, no man could tell the consequences. All had been taken for granted—not a tittle of evidence had been produced to show that there had been any such insurrection. In fact, all that had occurred, had been occasioned by the backwardness of ministers in availing themselves of the powers they undoubtedly and constitutionally possessed of arresting those on the Sunday who were about to rise on the Monday; so that, in order to have the Derby trials, it was necessary to have an insurrection; and there could be no insurrection unless ministers neglected their duty by not putting into effect the ordinary laws of the country. Contrivance and artifice were evident on the face of the whole business; and yet the report concluded with the assertion, (which every man expected, of course, from a body so constituted), that ministers were a most meritorious set of men, and had preserved the constitution from ruin and destruction. Did the noble lord really flatter himself that he could impose upon the House; or if he could, that he could juggle men of sense and independence out of doors? The noble lord was as expert as any man at such things, and the delay of this notable report had been a part of the contrivance. The committee had sat for three weeks; public curiosity had been stretched from day to day; only the day before yesterday the right hon. gentleman opposite, (Mr. Bathurst) had stated, that a new point of the utmost importance had been started, which occasioned a new delay, and the postponement of the report until long after it had been presented in the other House, naturally led to the conclusion, that there would be at least something in it. But who could assert that the report now launched upon the public contained any thing? It was unworthy to be taken into consideration, even according to the noble lord: and no measure was to be founded upon it. It arose from nothing—it was in itself nothing—and it was to lead to nothing. Nothing could come of nothing; or if the noble lords ingenuity could make something out of nothing (as, perhaps, had been very nearly accomplished when he himself was made a minister), he was afraid to avow it: he was ashamed (a quality in which he he was not always abundant) to own that a bill of indemnity was to be founded upon such a thing as now laid upon the table. Mr. Tierney said he did not believe a syllable of it; he would not believe assertions unsupported by proofs, and when all evidence to the contrary was rejected. It was not very usual for men to be judges in their own cause; but that course had been here pursued. On other occasions, when a green bag had been sent down, the aid of parliament was required; but here nothing was asked, excepting that the Crown wished for the opinion of the House, while the ministers refused the means by which only an opinion could be formed. No man in his senses would give credit to a body constituted as this committee had been. While the table was covered with petitions demanding inquiry; while the whole country demanded to be satisfied why the constitution had been suspended, this notable report was put forth. He defied the noble lord to state any reason why the report was made, but that a bill of indemnity might be founded upon it; or to show any precedent of a committee named like the present, without purpose or result; or, in plain English, without bead or tail. Where were the vouchers for this singular, not to say ridiculous production? Not one had been produced, and it would give no more satisfaction to the country, than if every member of the committee had separately risen in his place in the House, and declared, that in his opinion (having, in truth, no opinion of his own) ministers were very wise men, had acted most discreetly and impartially; and had entitled themselves to the everlasting gratitude of the country. It was scarcely worth while to oppose seriously the motion for printing a document so absurd, contemptible, and ludicrous. It would, no doubt, be a waste of the paper on which it was printed, and it would also be a waste of the time of the House to make farther comments upon it.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that though he did not intend to propose any thing to the House founded upon the report, yet the right hon. gentleman was, of course, at perfect liberty to do so if he thought it proper or prudent. The opinion just expressed was undoubtedly strong, and considering, that the report had been only once read, it was sufficiently summary: it was no less than that the right hon. gentleman did not believe a syllable it contained, and he of course endeavoured to excite a feeling in the House, and in the country (in both of which he would completely fail) that the report was a production wholly unworthy of notice. What reliance would be placed upon this hasty judgment, either in doors or out of doors, experience would make evident. This was not the first time the country had reason to think the right hon. gentleman not the profoundest oracle that ever sat on the other side of the House. It was not difficult to prophecy, that on the present occasion, as on many others, the right hon. gentleman would not succeed in deluding the public, and in persuading them that there had existed no danger, and that ministers had deserved no credit for their promptitude and their decision. Though the report was not to be taken into consideration on any particular day, yet occasions would be afforded for discussing it. The right hon. gentleman and his friends need not despair of occasions when they might endeavour to renew discontent and alarm. As to the assertion, that the opinion of the committee was nothing but the opinion of government, the right hon. gentleman must know too much of the constitution of that body, to suppose that the resolutions would all be passed without opposition; and it was quite a sufficient ground for appointing a com- mittee to say, that it was desirable that the country should be informed of its real situation. The danger had been great, and was now happily diminished; but it was not yet so far past, but that it might return, unless vigorous precautions were adopted. The moral and well-disposed part of the community had a right to know, as they did from this report, from what dangers they had escaped, and what yet remained to be encountered. It was no humiliation of the government or of the House to name a body for such a purpose; and while dangers still remained, they would be met by ministers with the same firmness that had hitherto distinguished them, recurring at the fit season to the salutary principles of the ordinary law. No man could deny that much had been accomplished by the powers with which the wisdom of parliament had invested ministers; and the country, now the danger was in some degree gone by, were not to be imposed upon by being told that their fears had been idle, and their precautions unnecessary. Information had been given in the only mode in which it could be communicated, and when the bill was before the House would be the more fit time for objections to or observations upon that mode. At least, however, it was fit that the report should be printed, for he did not apprehend that the House would carry the spirit of economy so far as not to consent to the printing of the report.

Mr. Brougham

said, that if the noble lord was so well informed as to the feelings of the House and of the country; if he thought the disposition of the one or of the other was so favourable to him and his friends, it was singular that, instead of submitting the whole inquiry to the whole parliament, he should have picked out a body for the purpose composed almost entirely of his own special associates and adherents. The noble lord had said that his right hon. friend was at liberty to submit a motion upon the subject of the report if he thought fit to do so; but the noble lord seemed to forget that the whole objection to this document was, that it was unworthy of any attention; that it was futile in its progress, and ridiculous in its conclusion. One objection which he had to this committee was, that it was selected in such a way, and carried on its labours in such a manner, that the country was not likely to derive any benefit from its deliberations. In what way had they proceeded to obtain information? The noble lord would not tell the House how they had inquired. It was essential, however, that some farther explanation should be given on that point. Had any parole evidence been adduced? Had any person been examined viva voce? This should be stated to the House. Another reason why no confidence could be reposed in this report was, the manner in which the committee was constituted. The noble lord had professed a desire that the state of the country should be ascertained in a fair and impartial manner. But how was this proof of impartiality exhibited? The noble lord, it was true, had proposed the names of two or three gentlemen who sat on his (Mr. Brougham's) side of the House; but, with the exception of one, his noble friend (lord G. Cavendis), who could not attend, they were those who had supported the very measures which the noble lord introduced in the last session of parliament [Cries of Hear!]. He would maintain what he had said; for, as to one of those gentlemen, if there was any man to be found who, for respectability of talents as well as of character, deserved the attention of the House, it was that very gentleman (Mr. Lamb), who was selected from this part of the House, but who had recommended those measures which were mentioned in the reports of last year. He came recommended to the noble lord, not only by his character and talents, but also on the authority of the opinions which he had formerly delivered; and, therefore, he thought the nomination I of his hon. friend one of the most insidious acts which the government had practised on this or any former occasion. With respect to another hon. and learned friend (Sir A. Piggott) whom the noble lord had named on the committee, it was well known that he did not attend on the former investigation; and it was anticipated, therefore, that he would not devote his attention to the present inquiry. In point of fact, this was a committee of the last secret committee; and they were selected in this way to whitewash the government, and to justify the reports of last year. If any thing were wanting to satisfy the House and the country of the mockery of nominating a committee in this manner, it was the refusal of the noble lord to fill up the vacancy occasioned by the non-attendance of lord G. Cavendish, and of sir A. Piggott, who refused to attend on the former occasion, and who could not be expected to attend on this. Ministers attempted to make it appear that four members were taken from the opposition to sit on this committee; but the fact really was, that they had taken but one. With respect to the report, he would rather it were printed, and the country, who were anxiously watching their proceedings, and who had seen the way in which the committee was named, might also see the manner in which they had executed their duty.

Mr. Bathurst

maintained, that sir A. Piggott had attended the whole of the sittings of the first committee. He had no reason to know that that learned gentleman would be more engaged this year than he was last year. He knew that he had been several times in the second committee, and therefore, as far as that learned gentleman was concerned, he maintained that there was no information given to the House that he would not attend. Why, it was asked, was the inquiry carried on in a secret committee? The answer was obvious. It was necessary to have a committee of secrecy, as the evidence to be submitted to it was secret. If they acted otherwise, they would not only be breaking faith with the persons who gave them that evidence, but they would prevent the present, or any other government, from ever availing itself of similar evidence. It was impossible to examine the persons who had complained to the House, because it would in that case have been necessary to bring forward also the persons who gave evidence against them. All that was necessary, was to see that there was a primâ facie case to justify the government. This was quite different from the guilt or innocence of the persons arrested. The object was to see whether the powers entrusted to the government were executed in an arbitrary manner, or with as much moderation as the nature of the circumstances would admit.

Sir W Burroughs

wished to ask, whether the committee had examined any vivâ voce evidence? If no person from the opposite side of the House thought proper to answer this question, he should move that the committee be directed to return an answer as to what was the fact.

Lord Folkestone

wished merely to observe, that he had stated to the House lately, that there was no precedent of a bill of indemnity after a suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, except in 1801. The noble lord had then contradicted this statement, and had told the House, that it would be more difficult to find precedents of suspensions of the Habeas Corpus act which were not followed by bills of indemnity, than of suspensions which were followed by bills of indemnity. Since that time he had examined into the subject, and he now positively repeated his assertion, that in the statute book there was no precedent for any bill of indemnity on such an occasion as that on which it was now proposed to introduce it, except in 1801.

The report was ordered to be printed.