HC Deb 19 February 1819 vol 39 cc521-8
Mr. Dawson

rose, pursuant to notice, to move, "That a Committee be appointed to take into consideration the act passed in the last session, for the regulation of Grand Juries in Ireland, and the state of the present law regulating the office of constable in Ireland, and to report their observations thereupon to the House." As he understood that no opposition was to be offered to his motion, he should trouble the House with but few observations. He should go into the committee with every disposition to preserve the principle of the act, and was only desirous of amending its details as much as might be done. He wished the power of grand juries, with respect to appointing eight constables for each barony were altered, that number being too large for some, and insufficient for others.

Sir J. Newport

said, that one of the most glaring defects of the grand jury system was, the inequality of the surveys, and thought that if the inquiry did not comprehend that topic, it would be inadequate.

Sir H. Parnell

would not give any opposition to the appointment of the committee, after the explanation the hon. member had made of his object, and that he was desirous of preserving the essential principle of the last act. Of the value of that principle, little doubt could exist. Few could question the utility of a rigorous investigation of all applications to a grand jury for grants of money, and the examination of them by the magistrates at quarter sessions, where the parties were on oath. He was willing, however, to join in any effort for amending the minor provisions, as the principle was to be adhered to.

Sir George Hill, with every disposition to enter the proposed committee, faithfully to discharge his duty, would not still be bound by any of the implied conditions laid down by the hon. baronet who had just spoken. With regard to that principle of the grand jury bill, which required, that all grants of county money should be accounted for in the most public manner, it had his full and entire approbation. But as the proposed committee would, in all probability, have to extend its sittings to a late period of the session, in consequence of the detail into which they would be obliged to enter, he then begged leave to give notice, that, on Monday, he should move for leave to bring in a temporary bill, enabling grand juries at the ensuing spring assizes to provide for the public works and repairs, which would be then in hand, according to the old and established usage previous to the act of last session. Three committees had been already appointed, to which the grand jury laws were submitted; and yet, so inefficient was the bill of the last session found to be, as not to have been acted upon since it passed the legislature. If the grand juries were not allowed sufficient funds, for the purpose of continuing the various repairs then going forward, the general improvement of Ireland would not only be impeded, but prevented. For the last seventy or eighty years, Ireland had materially improved, even under the direction and influence of those grand jury laws, so much reviled—laws which had obtained the sanction of many, if not of the great majority of the gentlemen of that country. If the grand juries were denied the means of repairing the public roads, the agricultural and manufacturing interests would be ruined; yes, ruined and destroyed. The various modes of laying on the cess in different counties, rendered it doubly necessary to re-invest the Irish grand juries with that power, from which had been derived, for years, much benefit to the country. The proposed committee should have every advantage his experience could afford them, or his industry supply; and he begged to state his fixed determination, when entering the committee, to use his best endeavours for the promotion of that object, which they would be called upon seriously and impartially to investigate. He called upon the House, in the name of all the various interests of Ireland, not to oppose the temporary bill he should speedily have the honour of submitting for their approval; as its only object would be, to further the general improvement of that country, whose interests he hoped would always be fairly attended to by parliament.

Mr. Becker

could not see that any necessity existed for the introduction of such a measure as that just proposed by the right hon. baronet. Defects, no doubt existed in the bill of the last session; but they were defects only existing in the machinery, and not in the principle. The next assizes, he thought, was likely to afford a fair opportunity for the trial of its merits and defects; but, certainly, one-half the jobs that had hitherto existed in Ireland, arose in consequence of the want of some bill containing a principle which would imperatively require that all public disbursements of county money should be publicly accounted for in open court. Such a principle was to be found in the bill of the last session; and, with all its other defects, he could not but think it superior to any previously existing law for the regulation of grand juries. The hon. gentleman in conclusion stated that he should oppose the intended measure of the vice treasurer of Ireland.

Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald

commenced by stating his acquiescence in the appointment of a committee. The principle of the bill of last session, he understood, they did not mean to touch: and he was only therefore sorry at what had fallen from the right hon. baronet below him. If any hostility were intended against the principle of that bill, he should oppose the appointment of a committee, because, except for the purpose of improving its details and rendering its machinery more practically operative, he saw no other necessity for the appointment. His right hon. friend below him had, more elaborately than usual, related to the House, the ruin and destruction that would inevitably fall in Ireland, if any delay took place in empowering grand juries to levy money in their old and usual way. But such a picture he could not help thinking overcharged. He had also told them, that the act of last session was never put into operation, and yet he complained of its defects before-it had been tried. That defects existed in it was not denied; but why not allow some time for a rational trial of those defects? The public roads in Ireland were repaired at so enormous an expense, in some places as 100l. per mile; and the right hon. baronet must be perfectly well aware, that the mischiefs likely to be produced by a short delay in the operation of the last act were not at all, in point of fact, as he had thought proper to describe them. Rumours had been circulated throughout Ireland that the act of the last session would be suspended or repealed; considerable anxiety was therefore the natural result, especially on the part of those who had already acted upon that bill, and hoped the most happy consequences from its amended continuance. These rumours it behoved the House to settle, and not suffer the public fermentation to continue any longer on the subject. The right hon. baronet had told the House, that the bill of the last session had never yet been acted on, while, no later than that very morning, he had received letters from various parts of Ireland, mentioning the reverse, and not only the reverse, but the fact of its being acted upon with considerable advantage. One of his correspondents was a noble lord, high in office in the king's county, who used his best endeavours with his brother magistrates to give the law a trial and whose prejudices once conquered, induced them to join most zealously with the noble lord in pushing the act into useful operation. An interested party had raised a clamour against the bill, because it required publicity to the accounts for the disbursements of public money, and afforded no screen to the improper conduct of a portion of the magistracy, who should never have been allowed to hold so important a situation. The poorer people in Ireland, the farmers and landholders hailed the act as a great and unexpected blessing. The old law they only knew in the inflictions of the tax; while the new law enabled them not only to ascertain precisely their quantum of taxation, but the purposes for which it was applied. His right hon. friend had then no right to characterise the act of the last session, as hasty, imperfect and impracticable. Some arrangements were no doubt necessary as to the qualification of those magistrates who should attend at quarter sessions; but that, together with other details, were better fitted for the consideration of a committee, than the members who were then assembled. The magistracy of Ireland had been often complained of; and he regretted to say, that in times, when domestic discord affected the public peace, it became necessary to appoint a description of persons to the magistracy, who, in better times, would not have been appointed to such a dignity. One of the worst evils afflicting Ireland existed in the appointment of. subordinate persons to the magisterial office, and he could not too often repeat his regret, that a reform had not been long since attempted in many who still held the commission of the peace. Partiality, and worse, too often characterised their conduct; and if the grand jury bill of last session made certain qualifications necessary in those persons, who were to become the judges and administrators of public justice, he thought that such a fact could not be brought in charge against those persons, who felt the existing evil, and wished, if possible to have it remedied. In the happier law of England there was a resident proprietary to protect the poor and sit on the bench in the administration of justice; but those were blessings almost wholly unknown to Ireland. Justice was dignified by the presence of upright magistrates; and dignity obtained increased respect, when honesty and property were found to be the presidents in every court to which the poor were in the habit of looking for relief. The hon. gentleman concluded by observing, that no great reformation was ever yet obtained, without something like a proportionate price being paid for it. The House, he trusted, would give the act of the last session a fair trial; and wait until experience should suggest improvements, before they destined it to inactivity or repeal. Above all things, he conjured the members to discourage every hope of the abandonment of the principles of that act. His object would be, while he admitted many of its defects, to render it as effectual as possible; never, however, losing sight of those principles that had been approved by all.

Sir George Hill

explained. In the session before last, when this measure was proposed by his right hon. friend, he had given it all the opposition in his power. When it had been brought forward again last session, he certainly did go into the select committee; but as he had attended the committee for only an hour and a half, he did not think himself responsible for the act of last year.

Mr. Abercromby

did not intend to offer any opposition to the motion. His sentiments accorded with those of the right hon. gentleman who had spoken last. He wished the House to recollect, that the committee had considered only the general principles of the law; but there were many practical points which those who were immediately concerned were best qualified to judge of. He would suggest to the hon. mover, whether he had not occasioned an obstacle to his own object, by omitting the words "with reference to the more effectual execution of the same." If the right hon. baronet persisted in his intention of bringing in a bill, such as he had mentioned, he should think it his duty to give it all the opposition in his power.

Sir G. Hill, in explanation, denied that he wished to return to the old law, by getting rid of the present act, although he could not shut his eyes to the inconveniencies of it.

Lord Jocelyn

said, he was anxious to go into a committee. He did not oppose the principle of the bill; he only wished to get rid of its defects. He did not wish to see any public works presented for before a strict investigation was had into the absolute necessity of such works. His right hon. friend had said, that he had received many letters from Ireland, stating the great public benefits that resulted from the bill. He, too, had received letters from that country, and these letters stated the direct contrary. It appeared to him that the people of Ireland had much reason to complain of the measure. What was their situation since the bill had passed into a law? When that bill was passing through the House, their hopes were raised—they heard of the many advantages it would give to the country; but he was sorry to say that those hopes were blasted, and that instead of deriving advantages from the bill, they found it a lame and inefficient measure. It was introduced into the House avowedly for the purpose of remedying the deficiencies of the grand jury laws: it was intended to purify the administration of those laws, and was cried up as a measure, of such vast importance, that the Speaker at the bar of the House of Lords had eulogized it as a measure highly beneficial to the country. Now, he would ask, what were the advantages that were felt from the operation of the law—how did it work with the country? The first proceeding of the succeeding session was a motion for its suspension. He would say, notwithstanding the many severe observations that had been made, that the old system had been one under which the country had derived many and great advantages. On a former occasion, he had stated that the bill would be found, inadequate. That it was so, was clearly established by the forcible but temperate petitions from Londonderry and Mayo, signed as they were by a great many most respectable gentlemen of those counties; and he would not hesitate to state, notwithstanding the aspersions that had been thrown upon them, that, taking the magistrates in Ireland as a body, there were not to be found men who entertained more honest and conscientious opinions.

Sir John Newport

said, that he did not find that there was any opposition to the appointment of a committee. In that committee, he hoped to see the principle of the bill strictly preserved; for he would not hesitate to express his decided conviction, that if the principle of the law were abandoned, it would work irreparable injury to Ireland. He had heard the system which this bill had subverted praised in the House; but he did not hesitate to say, that that system was pregnant with much mischief, and that it operated to the injury of Ireland. He thought it was rather hard, before the measure had had a fair trial, to suggest difficulties that had not occurred, and to anticipate effects that had not followed it. It had, indeed, been stated, that some difficulties had occurred in some counties. In answer to this, he could assert, that in many other counties no difficulties whatever lay in the way of the bill, and that it operated beneficially for the public interests. The House should bear in mind, that the bill was introduced on no ordinary grounds: it had been recommended by the necessity of the case: the plan was submitted to the consideration of a committee of the House, and no committee that had ever sat upon a public question had bestowed more pains or more attention or were more anxious to come to a fair, practical, and wise decision. The measure proposed by the right hon. baronet was a temporary bill, to suspend the operation of the present act. It was not difficult for the House to see the mischief that such a measure would create. In the first place, those who had placed faith upon the security of the law, would now be obliged to turn back to the old odious system. He could not contemplate such a measure without alarm, and he was not a little surprised to see that the ministers of the crown had given no opinion whatever; the more particularly as it must be fresh in the minds of many members in the House, that in the last parliament he had distinctly stated the great extent of the evils which grew out of the old system, and ministers as distinctly stated, that some steps should be adopted to remove them. He conceived that ministers were hound to support the present law, sanctioned as it was by the labours of a committee; called for as it had been by the circumstances of the country; and introduced as it was by persons connected with the administration. He would deplore the recurrence to the old system as a great public misfortune: it would give encouragement to those who had profited by it, and it would blast those hopes that Ireland entertained of the benefits to be derived from the existing law.

The motion was then agreed to; and a committee appointed.