HC Deb 10 March 1818 vol 37 cc953-60

The Attorney-General having moved the order of the day for the second reading of the Indemnity Bill),

Mr. Lambton

observed, that there were on the paper, two orders before that now moved, which, he supposed ought to take precedence of it.

The Speaker

said, he believed the understanding of the House was, that no one order had precedence of another. The individual who first caught his eye was, he believed, entitled to proceed. But the House would decide whether the hon. member was misled, as to his notion of precedence, or whether he (the Speaker), misconceived the usual course of practice.

Mr. Lambton

said, that as the indemnity bill was likely to occupy a considerable time, it would be more convenient to discuss the other orders before it came on. His hon. and learned friend had a motion fixed for that evening which ought to be disposed of before this subject should be brought forward.

Lord Costlereagh

observed, that as the order now moved was the most important, and as there was no precedence with respect to orders of the day, the hon. gentleman would feel the propriety of suffering the Indemnity bill to proceed, and not put it off till a late hour in the evening.

Sir W. Burroughs

said, that if the House would calmly consider the provisions of the proposed bill, it would feel it impossible to proceed thus hastily, or indeed without obtaining most necessary information. The bill comprehended three new heads, on which inquiry was absolutely essential, and on which the Reports of the Secret committees were wholly silent, although the present bill was supposed to emanate from their recommendation. These were, the seizure of arms by entering the houses of the king's subjects, the seizure of papers, and the seizure of persons found in tumultuous assemblies. A bill demanding indemnity for proceedings of that character, took the House by surprise. No man, from reading the reports of the secret committees, could have been led to expect such provisions of indemnification. They were to include, not alone magistrates and constables, but even private persons who might have entered the houses of people without any warrant or proper authority. This was an abuse of power not contemplated in any previous discussion of the measure. He put it, therefore, to the candour of the noble lord to say, whether it was not due to the House to obtain information before it was called upon to pass provisions of that extraordinary character? No injury could arise to any party from the delay, as the bill of indemnity had a retrospective operation, and as no legal process could be acted upon during the existing vacation before the next term.

Lord Castlereagh

observed, that the arguments of the hon. and learned gentleman, though applicable to the bill in committee, did not bear upon the principle of the measure on the second reading.

Mr. Tierney

denied that the subject could be so well discussed at any other time. If the bill was now read a second time, there could be no future opportunity to correct what formed so material a part of the bill. But the noble lord was so elated by his triumph last night, that he could not think it possible for any man to be right but himself. Reason, and argument, and discussion, must all give way at once before his invincible majority. It was quite evident that one-half of this bill was quite new to the House. The House thought inquiry necessary as to the proceedings towards persons committed under the suspension act, previously to the introduction of any act of indemnity. As to the other proceedings respecting arms, papers, and persons connected with tumultuous assemblies, no inquiry was instituted, and no information was given. The report of the secret committee was surely necessary, or ministers would not have proposed such a solemn proceeding. But the report never glanced at the seizures in question. It had been much insisted on, that no persons had been apprehended for treason, but in consequence of information on oath. Were the searches for arms and papers upon oath? They were bound by their own proceeding to answer this question before they called for indemnity. If the smaller class of violations of law were justified by information upon oath, let it be shown that this larger class proceeded also upon information on oath, which he very much doubted. To search Houses without any such information was an unprecedented exercise of authority; and to carry an indemnity for such an exercise by dint of votes, was equally unprecedented, and still more odious. He would seriously put it to the House, whether five gentlemen in it understood, when the bill was introduced, that it contained any such clauses.

Sir C. Monck

said, that this was a very serious matter. A search for arms and papers was no slight affair. The House should recollect the manner in which such a power was formerly exercised in Ireland and the oppression to which it gave rise. Any information leading to such a search ought to be received with considerable distrust. By the constitution of England it was every man's right, it was even his duty, he was bound to have arms for the protection of himself, his family, and property. They should consider the time at which the search took place—a time of great trouble and public alarm, which rendered arms more necessary for the purpose of defence. Were magistrates and their agents to be the arbitrary judges of the use to which a man intended to convert any arms found in his possession? Were they to presume a bad intention merely from the circumstance of finding them? When the bill was brought to his house he was astonished, on looking over it, to find an indemnity proposed for those who had thought proper to search for and seize arms. Magistrates or any other men had no right to break open a man's house for this purpose, except at the suit of the king, and even then it was under proper restrictions. They should not pass an indemnity bill for matters which had never been under the consideration of the Secret Committees. If the House was determined to agree to the measure without any time being allowed for inquiry, or for a return upon the three new heads alluded to, it signified little to talk any more about the bill. The sooner they got rid of it the better. It was a mere mockery of legislation to proceed in such a manner.

Mr. Bathurst

said, that the objection proposed should be made in the committee and not upon the second reading of the bill. In the committee, the House could dispose of the question of delaying the measure until farther inquiry. This was no time for it. The matter did not appear to him in the same light as it did to the hon. baronet. Indemnity should, in his mind, be extended to magistrates on account of searching for arms and papers as well as for any other part of their conduct. This point did not seem to need any particular inquiry. Magistrates had no such general power of search as that alluded to. The question was, whether they would grant them indemnity for their conduct in this respect, acting as they were upon the notoriety of public danger.

On the question, That the bill be now read a second time,

Mr. Grenfell

said, he should not delay the House long with the few observations he had to make. He could not, however, suffer the measure to pass the second reading with a silent vote. He was one of those who, in the last session of parliament, voted twice for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus. He did so with reference to the report of the first secret committee, from a confidence in the statements it contained, and in the persons by whom it was drawn up. He saw on that committee a noble lord (Milton) the member for Yorkshire, he saw the late Mr. Ponsonby, and others of great constitutional authority, who all gave their support to what the reports set forth. He would confess, however, that when the facts were disclosed upon which the report was founded, they did not appear to him of such a character as he had expected. Still, recollecting what seemed to be the feelings of the metropolis and other parts of the country in 1817; recollecting how the House was assailed with petitions compounded of folly and mischief, which, under the pretence of reform, aimed at nothing less than revolution; recollecting, too, that it was a time of great pressure and public distress, when many of the lower order of mechanics were out of work, and of course desirous of change, he could not repent of the votes he had given. In these circumstances, he owed it to his own consistency to give his support to the bill of Indemnity, and it was accordingly his intention to give it his support in all its stages.

Lord Lascelles

said, he wished to take this opportunity of stating a few circumstances connected with a petition which had been presented from an individual upon a previous evening. The name of the individual to whom he alluded was Richard Lee.* In his petition, speaking of an unfortunate man named Riley, who had died by his own hand in prison, he said, that to make the cell fit for his reception, he was under the necessity of removing away the clotted blood with his own hands. Upon the subject of this petition, he had received a letter which he would take the liberty of reading to the House. It was from Mr. Staveley, the keeper of York gaol. It would be recollected, that Lee's petition set out by stating that he was innocent of all the charges brought against him. The person whose letter he held in his hand, said, that he was truly sorry to find that he had been deceived in the character of Lee; that he had written to lord Sid-mouth, praising him for his good and regular conduct, and stating that he felt sincere contrition for the guilt he had incurred; but that he now seemed disposed to fall back into his former evil practices. On the day he was discharged from prison, he came up, and in the presence of the rev. Mr. Deal try, a magistrate, expressed himself satisfied with the treatment he had received while in confinement. His warrant was dated on the 22d of July, and he was in prison until December. He never had more than a single iron put upon him of 5 lb., being weighed in the presence of Mr. Dealtry. It was the custom of the place, for the better security of prisoners, to fix such an iron upon them. He had 10½ lb. of bread a week; together with 6d, to purchase potatoes, besides which Lee and Riley were allowed 7s. a week each by lord Sidmouth. Such were some of the statements in the letter which he had received. Thy were in complete contradiction to the allegations of Lee's petition. The only part of it which appeared to be true was his being associated for some time with a felon who was afterwards executed. At first he was placed in the same room with other prisoners, but the letter went on to state, that he was afterwards removed into the same cell with Riley and Wm. King, who was charged with the murder of his wife; that King was sent there by the directions of the clergyman, that he might have an opportunity of hearing good books read. He was removed on the 25th of July, so that they were not more than five days *For a copy of Richard Lee's petition, see p. 590. together, and were only placed in the same room because it was more commodious. This statement seemed, if true, sufficient to do away that part of the petition which referred to his being associated with a felon. Riley was stated to have put an end to his own life in a fit of derangement, arising from close confinement. This language was, no doubt, thrown out with a view of inducing the public to believe that the rigour of his imprisonment was the occasion of his committing suicide. The letter, however, stated, that Riley was first confined at Huddersfield, where he attempted to put an end to his life by hanging himself. This showed that the disposition to suicide prevailed previous to confinement at York, From an affidavit sworn before the rev. Mr. Reid, by a person named Richard Carlton, who was confined at the same time with Lee and Riley, it appeared that previous to the suicide committed by the latter, they lived three weeks together; that when Lee found what had happened, he called out to one of the watchmen of the prison, and a surgeon was immediately sent for; that Lee asked deponent to clean up the blood before the coroner should come, saying, that he would recompense him for his trouble; that deponent according cleaned up the blood himself, without any help from Lee, who was not required, and did not assist in it. Such were the facts conveyed to him in a letter from the keeper of the York gaol. He thought it his duty to lay them before the House, without meaning at all to throw any blame upon the hon. member who had presented Lee's petition to the House. The writer he knew to be a roost respectable man in his situation, and for the space of twenty-six years, during which he had filled it, this was the first charge of severity that he ever knew to have been brought against him.

Sir Francis Burdett

observed, that he did not intend to enter into a detailed discussion at present on the Indemnity bill, particularly as it was his intention to deliver his opinion on it after it came out of the committee, on the third reading. He was anxious to offer an observation on the statement just made by the noble lord. He did not mean to imply, that the person of whom the noble lord spoke did not deserve the character, at the same time that he could not help adverting to the singular kind of phraseology with which he introduced the office of a gaoler; as if, indeed, he was speaking of the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford. Nothing could be more unsatisfactory to the country than the custom of producing in that House letters from gaolers to answer grave charges of oppression, brought by men who suffered, against them. To such statements, or even to the depositions of prisoners who were under their control or courted their favour, he could pay no attention. What he had himself witnessed during the investigation at Cold-bath-fields had convinced him that no dependence whatever should be placed on these partial representations. The House should not entertain them. If they wished to inquire into the truth or falsehood, they should have the question fully before them in a regular parliamentary shape. Having said thus much on the noble lord's statement, he could not sit down without expressing his surprise at the reason given by an hon. member near him (Mr. Gren-fell) for his assent to the present bill. That hon. gentleman was induced, he said, to vote for the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus act on the authority of the late Mr. Ponsonby. Now the fact was, that Mr. Ponsonby had voted against the Suspension act, and the hon. gentleman was therefore deprived of his authority. He thought the other reason of the hon. gentleman equal!)' extraordinary; for it amounted to this—that because the people had been oppressed by want, they ought to forfeit their liberties. One hon. gentleman (colonel Stanhope) had indeed contended, that it was Mr. Cobbett's writings which had created the necessity of suspending the Habeas Corpus. He certainly thought Mr. Cobbett a powerful writer, but he had never imagined that he possessed the degree of influence now attributed to him. It was singular to hear it represented that the government, with the means of bribing and corrupting almost the whole press of the country, in addition to the exertion of their own wit, intellect, and literary talents, should attach so much importance to what was sometimes called two penny trash and always described as maintaining doctrines equally false and absurd. Here was an instance, likewise, of a writer making use of no disguise, but publishing his opinions always under his own name, seeking no indirect advantage, like Junius, but fully exposed to the hostility of his opponents. He had no doubt if the hon. member who had represented Mr. Cobbett as so formi- dable, would send to him the refutation of his principles, with which he had favoured the House, it would be allowed a place in his publication. This reason, however, was perhaps as good as any other which had been assigned for so violent a breach of the constitution. His majesty's ministers well knew that there had been no treason in the country, and that the only conspiracy was a conspiracy to prevent reform. It was, indeed, going too far to plead these miserable subterfuges in justification of a proceeding, which he should always contend the House had no right to adopt. They were appointed to protect, not to suspend the constitution; to extend, and not to withdraw from the subject the benefits and protection of the law. He had already gone somewhat farther than he intended in the present state of the proceeding, and should reserve what he had farther to object, not only to the principle, but the provisions of the bill, till it should have gone into a committee, through which he conceived it to be impossible that it should pass in its present form.

Sir S. Romilly

thought the subject before the House one which required their most serious consideration. It ought not, therefore, to be hurried through in such a manner as not to allow members to form decided opinions upon it. He did not then mean to enter into the subject, as he understood the bill was to be referred to a committee to-morrow. But when the question should be put for the Speaker's leaving the chair for the purpose of going into the committee, he should oppose it, in order to have an opportunity of making known his opinion on the principle of the bill.

Lord Folkestone

asked the noble lord whether he wished to enter into the contest formerly mentioned relative to the precedents as to bills of indemnity? If so, he was prepared to prove, that none of the precedents quoted justified the bill now called for.

Lord Castlereagh

said, he was not prepared to say how far the precedents quoted might apply. His opinions on the subject of precedents were, however, unchanged.

The question being put, "That the bill be now read a second time, the House divided: Ayes, 89; Noes, 24.

List of the Minority.
Althorp, visc. Barnett, James
Brougham, Henry Newport, sir John
Burroughs, sir W. Ord, Wm.
Calvert, Charles Robarts, W. T.
Folkestone, viscount Romilly, sir S.
Hornby, E. Scudamore, R. P.
Heron, sir Robt. Smith, W.
Hamilton, lord A. Sharp, Robt.
Hurst, Robert Tierney, rt. hon. G.
Lefevre, C. S. Wilkins, Walter
Madocks, W. A. Wood, alderman
Monck, sir C. TELLERS.
Martin, Henry Lambton, J. G.
Newman, R. Burdett, sir F.