HC Deb 19 February 1824 vol 10 cc241-7
Mr. Secretary Peel

rose, pursuant to notice, to move for leave to bring in a bill to amend the Gaol act passed in the last session. It had been found, upon carrying that act into execution, that there were one or two particulars which impeded its operation, and to amend it in these respects was the object of his present motion. In the first place, the act as it now stood required certain things to be done at the general quarter sessions in each county. The counties of York and Lincoln being divided into districts, and the periodical administration of justice in those counties being under a different regulation, there were no general quarter sessions, and therefore, until by a new enactment they should be included in the act, they could not be brought under its operation. Another of the amendments which he proposed to introduce was, to give to local magistrates a power of committing prisoners to the county gaol at once, instead of to the district prisons. He was convinced that the more this practice was reduced the better; and if, would be still more advantageous, if there were only one gaol in each county, to which all the prisoners should be committed. As far as he had been able to gather the general wish of the inhabitants of the districts he alluded to, they would prefer having their prisoners committed to the county gaol, and would willingly pay the expense of carrying them thither. The uniformity of discipline which prevailed in county gaols could never be attained in smaller prisons; while any abuses which crept into the former would be more readily discovered and corrected, The prisons of the local jurisdictions sometimes contained no more than four or five prisoners; they were not subject to the same visitation as the county gaols; nor was it possible to place them under that inspection which was so easily applied to a larger number. There was also another topic which he intended to include in the bill. Great difference of opinion prevailed, with respect to the compelling prisoners who were committed for trial, to labour in the same manner as those who were under sentence. He had no hesitation in saying, that he thought prisoners ought not to be kept to hard labour before trial; but, for the purpose of removing all doubt and difference of opinion upon the subject, he should insert a clause to that effect. An hon. gentleman (Mr. G. Bennet) had given notice of his intention to propose a measure respecting this particular subject, but as he understood that to be only in case he (Mr. Peel) did not take some steps in it, the hon. gentleman would now probably not think it necessary to fulfil that intention. He concluded by moving for leave to bring in a bill to amend the Gaol act of the last session.

Sir E. Knatchbull

concurred entirely with the right hon. secretary, in the amendments which he proposed, and deprecated the practice of keeping prisoners to hard labour before trial. There was, however, another, and no less objectionable practice, namely, where prisoners who had been sentenced by the court to imprisonment, but not to labour during that imprisonment, were still made to labour, upon the principal that they ought to provide for their support as long as they were within the prison. He thought that some remedy for this illegal practice ought to be provided in the proposed amendments.

Sir T. Lethbridge

took that opportunity of complaining of the hardship and injustice which was experienced by the land-owners in being compelled to pay the whole expense of the administration of criminal justice in each county. That expense was entirely defrayed out of the county rates, and had undergone so rapid an increase within the last fifty years, that it was now a very important charge. He had looked into the accounts of his own county for some years past, and, without troubling the House at any length, with the particulars of the great increase, he would merely state, that in the year 1761 the charge for printing was 33l. 18s.; while in 1819, it had increased to 1,200l. The salary of the clerk of the peace in the first mentioned year was 300l. per annum, and now by means of additional fees, it amounted to 1,300l. He was aware that at present there was no other source but the county rates from which these expenses could be paid, but he trusted that the right hon. gentleman would recognize, among the alterations which he proposed, the principle, that this expenditure should be borne by the nation at large, and not be taken from the land alone. He hoped that a committee would be appointed to inquire into the best mode of relieving the land-owners from this charge, and that at the same time an inquiry would be made into the mode of assessing the poor-rate, which might be considered as an item of the county-rate.

Colonel Wood

rose also for the purpose of suggesting to the right hon. gentleman an alteration in the consolidated gaol act of the last session; he meant so far as related to the classification clauses. If they were to be carried into execution, it could only be done at an expense which the smaller counties were ill able to bear, and which moreover appeared to be quite unnecessary. In Breconshire, the county which he had the honour to represent, the gaol Consisted of four yards, four day- rooms, and six cells; an estimate had been made of the sum it would cost to make the alterations required by the consolidated gaol act, and it was found that at the least it would take 3,000l., or the amount of four county-rates; while it was quite certain that one half of it would never be occupied. In the adjoining county of Radnor, the gaol consisted of two yards, two day-rooms, and four cells; the only prisoner was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and he had petitioned to be transferred to the other county gaol, in order that he might not be kept in solitary confinement. He trusted that, seeing the number of prisoners in the gaols of the Welsh counties, which, for the honour of the principality, he was glad to say were very few, those gaols would be exempted from the operation of the classification clauses.

Mr. Hobhouse

rose for the purpose of calling the right hon. gentleman's attention to the injurious consequences of the introduction of the tread-mill into the prison discipline. Notwithstanding the reports which the right hon. gentleman had received respecting it, he (Mr. H.) thought that a mere inspection of the machine was sufficient to prove its inadequacy to the purpose for which it was intended. All the persons sent to it were exposed to the same degree of labour; without any allowance being made for difference of strength and constitution. The committee on prison discipline had furnished even a more cogent reason why punishment should be in some degree modified, when they denounced it as a dangerous instrument of oppression in the hands of wanton and ignorant persons. He was happy to see the promptitude with which the secretary of state for the home department had met the gross misapplication of this system in a recent case where magistrates had contended for the power of dooming persons to the treadmill before trial. How any living beings could, for one single instant, have presumed that they were justified in such a misapplication, appeared to him a most extraordinary phenomenon. And (said Mr. Hobhouse) I must be allowed here to say, that if the magistracy of this kingdom evince such a promptitude to exercise powers of harshness and oppression, and unless such a spirit be met by the resistance of this House, and of the government, that body, which have, perhaps too hastily, been called a blessing, will dege- nerate into one of the greatest curses with which the people of this country could be afflicted. It is too much the case for magistrates to consider themselves, not as magistrates merely, but as parcel and part of the government; and therefore it is that I feel it highly creditable to the right hon. secretary, that he has given them this lesson—that, when they assume a power in which they are not justified by law, by him they will not be countenanced. In what code of legislation in any country—in what usage of their own—could they have found even a pretext for such a course? It is no excuse for men bound to execute justice, that they thought they were right. If their own consciences were silent they had the same means that were open to every other person of consulting those, who were conversant with the statutes of the country before they proceeded to act upon such an assumed power. And here he could not help suggesting a hope, that the right hon. secretary would direct his attention to those punishments, latterly introduced into our prisons, where men not sentenced to that kind of punishment were placed in solitary imprisonment. He did hope that the utmost circumspection would be exerted in watching the operation of the new system, lest it might be converted, in the hands of ignorant and wanton persons, into an engine of dread-full oppression.

Alderman Wood

could not coincide in the fears of his hon. friend, as to the apprehension of any excess of punishment from the introduction of the tread-mill. That system of labour had been in practice in the city of London for the last hundred years, on the commercial quays; and he, therefore, could not see any reason to suppose that that portion of labour which was voluntarily undertaken by the labouring classes, could operate prejudicially as a species of prison discipline. In the gaol of Newgate a severer kind of labour was made applicable to the wants of the prison, and no bad effects had been experienced from it. With respect to the proposition thrown out by the hon. member for Somersetshire, he should only say, that complaints of expense came with a very bad grace from a county whose prison and whose prison discipline had been the subject of censure in a parliamentary report. As to the expenses attendant on the administration of criminal justice, he begged to say is answer to the hon. baronet, that, with the exception of the expenses to witnesses, which lay with the judges, the remainder was under the control of the local magistracy. The city of London met its expenditure, great as it was. Why should not Somersetshire? on what grounds, was the country at large to be burthened with expenses, incurred for local purposes?

Sir C. Cole

stated the severe hardship which the new law imposed upon the counties in Wales. The greatest number of prisoners that he ever knew to have been in the gaol of Glamorganshire were 18. The annual average was six; and yet, under the classification of prisoners, the expense to the county would be 5000l. He trusted some exception would be made in favour of the Welsh counties thus circumstanced.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that in reply to the observations of the hon. baronet, the member for Somerset, he should only observe, that he would willingly attend to any suggestion, which would afford the best means of giving the fullest information to parliament, on the subject to which the hon. baronet had alluded. But he was persuaded that, for a due control on the expenditure which local burthens created, the local magistracy was best calculated to devise the means. To place such a duty on a public officer for the country generally, was, in his judgment, most objectionable; and would lead to a much larger expenditure, and to a less efficient check. He must be allowed to add, that if great burthens arose in counties from the expenses of criminal prosecutions, the certain method to reduce the amount, was by a salutary and efficient system of prison regulation. With respect to what had fallen from his hon. friends, the members for the principality, with every disposition to attend to the particular cases, he felt great difficulty in. admitting the principle that there should be no classification of Welsh prisons. In his present view of their objections, however, he should merely throw out as a suggestion, that though it was impossible to admit the exemption claimed, yet he thought the difficulty might be met, by three or four Welsh counties combining to erect a prison for themselves. The purposes of classification would, in that case, be fully answered. With reference to what had fallen from the hon. member for Westminster, he really wished that hon. gentleman would take the trouble to peruse the returns, which would shortly be laid on the table, on the subject. He (Mr. P.) had caused a most minute inquiry to be made, and the weight of individuals subjected to the punishment of the tread-mill to be noted; from which it would appear, that so far as increased weight was an indication of good health, the punishment could not have operated injuriously. As the labour was only for the short period of a quarter of an hour at a time, nothing could be more easy, if it were found necessary, than to give to the robust man two turns, and to the weak man only one. Indeed, the peculiar advantage of this punishment was, that it could be graduated. If it were said, why, then, was it not? the answer might fairly be, that the magistrates did not find any ill effects on the parties subjected to this discipline. On the whole, he considered the tread-mill as an admirable contrivance, and that no system of labour could be devised which was so little liable to abuse. It was not necessary for him to defend the general conduct of the magistrates of this country. He believed there was only one single case of a misconstruction of the act, and that was in the north riding of Yorkshire; but to remedy that, he should introduce a clause to exempt a prisoner from the labour of the tread-mill prior to his conviction.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.