HC Deb 09 February 1819 vol 39 cc0-396
Mr. Dawson

presented a petition from the county of Londonderry, praying for the revision of the act passed in the last session, respecting Grand Jury Presentments in Ireland. In doing this, he begged to be understood by his right hon. friend, that the petitioners in no part complained of the principles of the measure which he had introduced. He allowed that the former system of grand jury presentments in Ireland was indefensible; and that the grossest abuses prevailed in the application of the money, to raise which, the tenantry were pressed to the ground by taxes, under the name of county rates. The petition, which was signed by almost all the magistrates, complained, that, from local circumstances, the act was inoperative in the county of Londonderry. Before a presentment was made to the grand jury, it was required by this act, that it should be approved by a surveyor and three magistrates, who were to possess certain qualifications there specified. The qualification was a certain amount of freehold property or long leases; but it happened, that, in the county of Londonderry, a great proportion of the most active magistrates were the holders of church leases, who were thus incapacitated from giving their consent to the presentments. Without the assistance of the magistrates thus excluded, it was almost impossible that any presentment could be made.—The petition was brought up and read. On the question, That it be laid on the table,

Sir J. Stewart

said, he disapproved altogether of the act respecting grand juries.

General Hart

said, that the old system of grand jury presentments, which had been abolished, had been productive of much benefit to Ireland, and only required time to bring it to perfection; but the present system rendered the carrying on of public works impossible. When the judges had recommended at the assizes the employment of the poor on public works, it had not been found possible to follow their advice, in consequence of the difficulties thrown in the way of presentments.

Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald

said, he would for the present avoid going into any topics that did not immediately arise out of the petition just presented to the House. Whatever might have been the operation of the act, the House and the country would, he had no doubt, at least, do justice to the motives of those by whom it was introduced, to their anxiety for the public interests, and their desire to put down abuses which were disgraceful to the laws and injurious to the morals and the welfare of the Irish people. He, for one, had no other motive than to promote the public good; and he would not tamely or silently submit to any imputations which gentlemen might think fit to cast upon the bill. As to what had fallen from the hon. gentleman who presented the petition, he had nothing to complain of, nor would he now deny but that local causes might have rendered it difficult, at a particular time, to carry the provisions of the law into execution, however easy they might be executed in other parts of Ireland, and however well they might have operated. But he would beg the attention of the House to what had fallen from the hon. gentleman in the candid statement he had made. He had said, that most disgraceful abuses and most intolerable burthens pressed upon the people of Ireland before the enactment of the law now complained of. The hon. gentleman who presented the petition, had spoken of him in terms too flattering; but he hoped he might say, without any breach of personal delicacy, that his motives were at least pure, and his zeal untainted by any personal consideration, when he laboured to overturn a system pregnant with public evil. This system might, in the eyes of some, be looked upon with interest and with tenderness—they might bewail its fall as the fall of an old friend—they might describe it as an institution innocent as it was ancient. He had never quarrelled with the institution itself; it was of its abuses that he had always complained; it was those abuses that he had always laboured to overturn. On the different occasions when he had brought the subject before the House, he had admitted the excellency of the ancient laws, but it was manifest that time and corruption had created many abuses, and that new measures were indispensable. But, however necessary these measures might have been, the House would recollect, that the duty of revising the ancient law was not a duty voluntarily undertaken by him—it was not until the reports of different committees had been laid before parliament; it was not until those abuses became manifest, and loudly called for the interference of government, that he, as a member of that government, brought forward some measures to meet an evil so flagrant and so extensive. He was not insensible of the odium which his exertions had collected on him; he had felt it, even in the very county he represented. Government were pledged to investigate the causes of so much public abuse; they did investigate—and he would now challenge those who complained of the present law, whether they could bring the tenth part of the abuses which were proved to flow directly from the old system which they wished to re-establish, against the new law which they wished to repeal. He could himself prove many abuses which came immediately under his consideration. On the other hand, that some imperfections might be found in the late law, he did not mean to deny. It was difficult to avoid some errors—it was difficult to have every thing complete and perfect, when we substituted new regulations for those which had existed for. a century before—which had grown up with the institutions of the country—and which had been administered by a body so transitory as that of a grand jury. But he thought it rather hard, that gentlemen who withheld themselves from the investigation, who refused to contribute their labour or their information, should now complain of what they never took any trouble to correct. He did not impute any thing unhandsome to gentlemen, but it too frequently happened, that men could not endure the success of a measure which they had originally opposed; they looked on its success with envy, and hailed its fall with an unworthy pride. The principle he sanctioned was the principle of reform—it was a principle that would not sanction the expenditure of the public money, without having that money strictly accounted for; this was a principle which deserved the support of the House, nor would they entertain the views of those who said, "return to the old system, and throw the labours of the late parliament away." He would not conceal the fact, that in various parts of Ireland objections were made to the grand jury laws as they now stood. It would be un candid on Ills part not to state the fact; the more particularly as he understood some county meetings were about to be held against it. It had been stated, that the provisions of the law were not found practicable: he would ask were they tried? He would lament the inconvenience of the country; but that was not the fault of the law. If it was shown that the provisions of the law could not be put in force, he would be the first to abandon it; but he could not help saying that the assertion made, that the law prevented the passing of presentments and the employment of the people, was a gross misrepresentation. Inconvenience might in some places have occurred, but in most parts of Ireland the law operated to the advantage of the country, and he would implore the House not to touch on the principle of the law—that principle which gave security and protection to the people that the public money should be applied to useful purposes, and should not be advanced without being strictly accounted for. Highly as he valued and respected those gentlemen who compose the grand juries of counties in Ireland, he could not forget that they were a transitory, and, therefore, not a responsible body—that, pressed as they were with a variety of other business, they had little time to bestow on presentment accounts; but when those accounts were examined in open court by magistrates at quarter sessions, and when no account could pass without their sanction, he considered that process a great security for the proper appropriation of the money of the people. The hon. gentleman who presented the petition had called on him to amend the law. Could he anticipate the sentiments of others, as he did those of the hon. gentleman—could he suppose, that they, like him, were sincere, he would willingly undertake any duty that the House should impose on him; but he felt that there was an objection, in the minds of some, to the very principle of the law; he felt that their object was not to amend it, but altogether to overthrow the principle upon which it was founded, and he would therefore beg to liberate himself from any further interference. Indeed, it would be but a fruitless effort on the part of any individual. He recollected when the law was first brought in, recommended as it was by the necessity of the case, and aided as it was by the support of government, it was with difficulty that it passed through the House, and he feared that the principle of that law could receive little support from the unassisted efforts of an individual unconnected as he now was with the government of the country. He would therefore decline the task, and he should make but one observation—be would make it with earnestness, and with a deep sense of the importance of the subject. It was, that the great object of the law deserved the protection of his majesty's government, and he implored of them to protect it. It was, he repeated, too much for art unassisted individual; and when he recollected that the object of that law was, to overturn a system, the growth of a century, he was not surprised at the opposition it met; he was not surprised, however he might lament, that he had been so often called to battle both in and out of parliament. He would beg to state, that when a right hon. baro- net had formerly brought before this House the state of Ireland, his right hon. friend (Mr. Peel) and himself had pledged themselves to investigate this very subject, as a subject deeply affecting the public and the local interests of that country. He had been, he feared, betrayed into too long a statement; but he assured the House that he had abstained from many things which pressed upon his feelings; he had too much reason not to expect many hostile attempts against the principle of the grand jury laws; whenever they were made, he should rise in his place to combat them—but he felt it right to state that there his interference should end.

Sir H. Parnell

said, that he concurred with the opinion of the right hon. gentleman opposite, on the subject of the Irish grand jury laws. He therefore conceived it to be his duty to support him on the present occasion, and to resist, with all his ability, the opposition which was then making to the measure which he had so wisely and ably originated and conducted. The right hon. gentleman had filled his post most honourably, and he therefore hoped that the appeal which he had made to the House would have its due effect; and that the useful work which he had commenced would not be deserted. The opposition to it had no foundation on which it could firmly rest. The new law required that no application of money should be made without the examination of the magistracy; and he did not find that any material error had been committed by the promoters of the law in forming that enactment. In the county which he had the honour to represent, he must say that the law had met with the most complete success. The chairman of the magistracy at the sessions in his own county, to whom he had applied for information on the point, had informed him that no difficulty had occurred at their sessions; but that, on the contrary, the operation of the law had been eminently successful. This he stated from his own inquiries; and he feared that gentlemen who censured it, did not always take the precaution of understanding it. At the assizes, before that law had been tried, in the Queen's County, the amount of the presentments was 13,000l.; but when that law came into operation, the amount of the presentments was only 4,000l., and 2,000l. of this sum was disapproved of by the magistrates at the quarter sessions. Thus did it work in the Queen's County; and if the law had operated so beneficially there, he could not see why it should not equally operate in other counties. Temporary causes might prevent it for a season, but it was founded on a principle that must ultimately operate for the good of the country. The hon. baronet concluded by expressing his hope, that the request of the right hon. gentleman would be attended to by his majesty's government, and that they would support a measure which promised to promote the morality, and to protect the interests of the Irish people.

Sir George Hill

hoped, that as he was the representative of the city of Londonderry, the House would bear with the observations which a sense of duty impelled him to make. He was prepared to argue, from the words of the petition itself that the petitioners were not hostile to the principle on which the present Irish grand jury laws were founded. They prayed, indeed, for the repeal or amendment of the present laws, but they did not wish to get rid of the principle on which they rested. He was truly sorry to hear the declaration of his right hon. friend, that he should decline to take the lead in this matter, because he was aware that the want of his right hon. friend's co-operation would be a serious injury to the cause which he was advocating.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

said, that as far as he could lend his aid, he would willingly assist in any amendments that might be found necessary in the law, provided the principle of the law itself was not attempted to be destroyed. As to the petitioners, nothing was further from his intention than to impute any hostility to them. As to the right hon. baronet, he did not mean to apply any observation to him. He was the gentleman who, in that House, had seconded the measure. He gave it his support: every part of it was submitted to his consideration, for the purpose of receiving his sanction.

Mr. Peel

said, he observed with regret the inattention and listlessness with which the House were looking upon a question so important to the interest and prosperity of Ireland. For his own part, he conceived that the affairs of Ireland, relatively situated as Ireland was towards us, and with the comparative minority of members which she sent to the British parliament, deserved to engage the serious consideration of the House whenever they came before it. He said, that not a single assizes had intervened before the advantages of the present system were clearly and distinctly seen; and he therefore trusted, that it would not be on slight or inconsiderate grounds that they would think of abandoning it. He wished to explain to the House a few of the objections to the old system, with which, most likely, many members, particularly those who had HOW for the first time come into parliament, were not well acquainted. They were greatly mistaken if they thought the powers of grand juries in Ireland did not exceed those of grand juries in England, or that in order to dispose of the money of the land-owners, the same formalities were necessary that were observed in this country. They were probably not aware, that grand juries in Ireland could dispose of the money of land-owners to an almost unlimited amount, by means of what were technically known by the name of presentments: they had in fact done so in many cases for roads, bridges, and various public works; so that, when the direct taxes of Ireland did not exceed 4,000,000l., the indirect taxes imposed by grand juries were scarcely less than one-fourth of that sum. This was an abuse that loudly called for a remedy; and it was the more necessary, when it was recollected, that the sums required by grand juries were demanded with scarcely any inquiry, upon the mere representation of two individuals. It was a fact that sometimes so many applications of this kind were made to grand juries, that if their whole time at an assizes were devoted only to them, they could not give more than one minute and a half to each presentment. The sums ordered were accounted for in the most irregular manner, and frequently not at all: one of the parties making the presentment was called upon to make oath, and this was deemed sufficient, until he (Mr. Peel) in his official capacity had entered into some investigation into the abuses and frauds practised, and found that in one instance, where an estimate of 19,000l. for a public road had been laid before the grand jury, the expense had exceeded the estimate by 20,000l., of which the grand jury had also directed the payment; and the surveyor, had without all warrant, made compensation to parties according to his own notions of the injury sustained, because he thought the jury summoned to assess the damages had not assigned a sufficient sum. In fact, there was no end to the abuses under the old system; and if the new law was not perfect, and he was far from saying that it was, at least it was a material improvement, that might be carried further upon subsequent examination of the subject. He hoped, at least, that the old system would not be recurred to, until it had been found that all attempts to remedy its defects were unavailing.

Sir John Newport

said, that the objections made to the new law were as yet only prospective, for as yet no opportunity of trying it had been afforded. He admitted that some defects might be found in it: experience might prove that, it was even materially deficient; but at least it was much to be preferred to the old system of presentments, which was even fuller of vices than of advantages: if he were required to choose between the one and the other, he would rather resign all the benefits of the old system (and many benefits undoubtedly flowed from some parts of it), than consent to the continuance of the vices which it inevitably occasioned. The great improvement upon the old law was, the publicity given to the presentments, and the compulsion to account for the expenditure, of the money; but he thought a still further amendment might be accomplished, if a clause were introduced to render the pressure of the burthen more equal upon all divisions of the. counties.

Ordered to lie on the table, and to be printed.