HC Deb 19 February 1819 vol 39 cc515-21
Mr. Hart Davis

, in presenting a Petition which he stated to be numerously signed by the merchants, manufacturers, and traders of Bristol, against the Insolvent Debtors act, took occasion to state his objections to this law. The oppression of the Poor laws upon the lower order of traders, was not, he was assured, by any means so much complained of, as the grievances resulting from the operation of this law. There was no doubt, that the principle of the law existing previous to the enactment of the law alluded to by the petitioners was extremely objectionable, inasmuch as it enabled creditors to confine debtors according to their will. But then it was to be recollected, that the operation of this principle was mitigated by occasional insolvent acts. With the statement of a worthy alderman (Waithman) on a former evening, as to the consequences of the law complained of by the petitioners, he had every reason to concur, and he hoped, that as those consequences were so universally complained of, his majesty's government would feel the propriety of taking up the subject. It was, indeed, strongly desired by all men in trade, that this objectionable law should be allowed to expire: and upon that event the House might proceed to consider what amendments might be made in the old law of the land, with a view to the due security of the honest creditor, and the relief of the unfortunate debtor.

Mr. Protheroe

thought the House must feel itself bound to take up this subject from the strong and universal objection prevailing, especially among the trading community, against the law alluded to by the petitioners. Even the smaller tradesmen, who were themselves liable to be under the necessity of an appeal to this law, expressed their objection to its principle, while the generality of those, who had taken the benefit of it, were found actually to laugh at a law, which, instead of obliging them to make any appeal to the mercy of their creditors, enabled them to set those creditors at defiance. This law had, in fact, the effect of encouraging debtors to embark in desperate enterprizes; for instead of proposing any composition, or giving up their property to their creditors, when they were on the point of insolvency, as was the case in many instances prior to the enactment of this law, debtors now too generally determined to take another plunge, consoling themselves with the idea, that whatever the event, they could "take the benefit of the act," as the phrase was. There was, he understood, some feeling of reverence for this law, in consequence of the support, which it received from sir Samuel Romilly, who was deservedly the object of universal respect and regard. But with all due deference to the character of sir Samuel, it was to be remembered, that he was the advocate of every humane proposition. Indeed, that good man seemed rather to have a leaning or prejudice on the side of humanity; for "E'en his failings leaned to virtue's side." But with every consideration that humanity might urge in favour of the debtor, some attention was surely due to the first claims of the creditor. That attention did not appear in the law under discussion, and therefore he concurred in the propriety of the complaint prevailing against it. That law was, indeed, so universally objected to, that he was assured no bill founded upon the same bases, would give any satisfaction to the trading community. He was one of the committee who inquired into the consequences of this law in a former session, and he had no hesitation in saying, that he would, in common with, he believed, all the trading part of the public, much rather prefer the abolition of the system of imprisonment for debt altogether, than the continuance of this law.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

said, that he should reserve for another opportunity the full delivery of his sentiments upon this subject. He rose on this occasion to corroborate the statement of the two gentlemen who had just addressed the House, namely, that the feeling was strong and universal against the existence of the law alluded to. That feeling was indeed quite just; for it was notorious that this law gave birth to an extravagant spirit of adventure and gambling, and encouraged practices utterly inconsistent with the just principles of trade. In order that every information should be laid before the House that could serve to guide its judgment, and to meet the observation made on a former evening as to the effects of the law existing previous to the present act, he stated his intention to move, after the present motion was disposed of, for a return of the names of all persons committed for debt within the last twenty years, distinguishing those who had compromised with their creditors, and also those who had been released by the existing or any previous Insolvent act.

Mr. Alderman Wood

rose to state what he deemed a sufficient reason to call for the repeal or amendment of the existing law. By this law it was held out that creditors should have a claim upon any property acquired by the insolvent after his liberation, but yet it was determined in a recent case, by the president of the insolvent court, that the law did not enable him to issue any process for the recovery of money in the hands of the Bank of England. Thus the promise held out by this law was perfectly delusive.

Mr. Abercromby

animadverted upon the manner in which a grave question of great importance was thus forced into discussion. There was, indeed, every reason to complain of the mode in which this subject was treated by those who concurred with the present petitioners. Their cry was for a total repeal of the existing law, without proposing any substitute whatever—without even suggesting any remedy for that which was the oldest evil in the former law of the country. That the old law was an evil not only inconsistent with justice, but revolting to humanity, was, indeed, testified by every respectable commentator upon our law, as well as by every politician, philanthropist and philosopher who had written or spoken upon the subject. It was in consequence of this general and just impression that a learned lord, who had been lord chancellor of Ireland, and who held the highest rank in his profession, proposed the enactment of the present law. That this law had produced great good could not be consistently denied; but yet, that no defects belonged to it he was not prepared to assert. But it was remarkable, that upon referring the petitions presented to the House last session against this law to the consideration of a committee, the petitioners themselves were found to be ignorant of the nature and character of the law of which they so clamorously complained, and possibly such would appear to be pretty much the case upon any inquiry that might be instituted with regard to similar petitions hereafter. He trusted, however, that the House would know how to appreciate the statements of those gentlemen who spoke of general alarm as to the existing law, without mentioning, or even hinting, what system they would prefer; for he presumed that no considerate being would recommend the revival of that unprincipled, unjust, inhuman system, which preceded the law of which those petitioners so angrily complained. In admitting the defects of the present law, the hon. and learned gentleman expressed his satisfaction to learn, that his learned friend, the attorney-general, had turned his attention to the subject, and that he who was so competent, had it in contemplation to propose an improvement of the system. Adverting to the language of the worthy alderman (Waithman), he declared himself astonished to hear from him an opinion, that the present law, by giving facility to the release of debtors, gave an extraordinary facility for the attainment of credit; for, judging according to obvious probability, a consequence directly the reverse was to be expected; for tradesmen, finding that debtors could obtain their release with so much facility, would naturally be more cautious about granting credit. The hon. and learned gentleman concluded with deprecating the clamour that had been excited against this much calumniated law, and particularly the consequences which must result from reverting to the old and universally reprobated system, which that law so very justly superseded.

Mr. Alderman Waithman

denied that he had said that the facility with which debtors could obtain their release would serve to give additional facility to credit; for he knew that the very contrary must be the result—and that formed one of his strongest objections to the existing law. Every man acquainted with trade must know the value of credit. How many of the most eminent merchants were originally clerks, and how could they have raised themselves if it were not for the credit they obtained? This law was, however, not only injurious to credit, but destructive of the whole morality of trade. He vindicated the humanity of men in trade, when honest but unfortunate debtors appealed to their mercy. He disclaimed any intention to encourage improvident credit, but it was notoriously impossible to carry on trade without credit, and his main objection to this law was, that it encouraged debtors to engage in wild enterprize and improvident speculation—to go on, indeed, in spending, until no property remained to satisfy their creditors. Hence, it appeared, that debtors for seven or eight millions of money had been discharged by the insolvent court, without giving more than one farthing in the pound to their creditors. On those grounds he complained of the law under consideration, for which, however, he did not feel himself bound to propose any substitute, as the hon. and learned gentleman required; but still he would be ready to give any assistance in his power in framing such a measure, as should at once secure relief to the unfortunate debtor, and give due protection to the property of the honest trader.

Mr. R. Gordon

wished for the indulgence of the House while he offered a very few words in favour of the unfortunate debtor. Notwithstanding all the bitter invectives which had been dealt out against this description of men, he should think it his duty to support the measure whenever it came before the House. The pressure of the times had rendered such a bill requisite and salutary, and if the united wisdom of parliament had sanctioned it, all the clamours which were industriously excited against it would not avail. It was a bill of relief from the implacable avarice and unrelenting rapacity of some creditors, who would never be contented but by the total ruin of their unfortunate victim. He approved, as much as any man, of the efforts of honest industry; but if a person, from the spirit of adventure and laudable ambition, became unfortunate, was it fair that he should be stigmatised and driven as an outcast from society? The bill afforded that commendable relief which with some gentlemen constituted this topic of reproach. The worthy alderman, in order to render the measure unpopular, had repeated his favourite remark, that between eight and nine millions of property had been sacrificed by the operations of the bill, without producing one farthing of dividend in the pound. With all due deference to the worthy alderman's ideas of the morality of trade, he was convinced the public had derived great good from its operations, even admitting the truth of the Worthy alderman's calculation. It had been the means of relieving many very honest, although unfortunate individuals, and had restored them to society. But he would ask the hon. alderman, if he believed that more of the property alluded to would have been recovered, had the present bill never been passed? The grand morality of trade, according to the hon. member's doctrine, was ready money and no credit. Although he had found it incumbent upon him to say thus much in favour of the unfortunate debtor, he was, however, by no means friendly to the dishonest adventurer. The present law Was in fact, very much misunderstood, especially through the clamour excited against it, in London, Bristol, and other places, where men of limited views undertook to judge of the subject.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table. Mr. Alderman Waithman then moved for the names of all those who had been imprisoned, and afterwards taken the benefit of any insolvent act, from the 31st Dec. 1797, to the 31st Dec. 1818. He, however, withdrew his motion, with an intention to bring it forward again on Some future day.