HC Deb 13 March 1827 vol 16 cc1178-84
Mr. D. W. Harvey,

in bringing forward his motion upon this subject, disclaimed any wish to impute improper motives to any person. His sole object had been, since he possessed a seat in that House, to discover and point out abuses of every description; and among those which required the notice and animadversion of parliament, none appeared to him greater than those which were connected with Excise prosecutions, which were so great in their extent, and so oppressive in their nature, that we might well wonder at their existence in a free country. He should first take the prosecutions that had been commenced upon the Customs'-law, as they were fewer and less oppressive than the others; and yet so great, that they called loudly for parliamentary interference. He did not mean to impeach the honesty of lawyers; but he did mean to say, that even they would not be free from suspicion, when prosecutions were carried on apparently with no advantage to the public; certainly, with great injury to the persons against whom they were directed; and when, on each of these, the prosecuting law officer received a fee. From a paper which he held in his hand, if appeared that seven hundred and nineteen prosecutions had been commenced from the year 1820 to 1826 inclusive, to recover penalties to the amount of 580,136l., and out of all these, the sums recovered only amounted to 23,789l.—a pretty strong proof of the small advantage derived by the public from them. In certain prosecutions which would be brought under the view of the House, if his motion should be agreed to, it would appear, that the Crown had lost, in expenses, more than 1,000l. beyond the sums awarded by the verdicts in its favour. In a prosecution where the verdict was for 11l., the costs were 151l.; and in another case, where the costs were 600l., there was a compromise for 30s. Some speedy means ought to be taken to expose the mode of conducting business of this nature, that the proper remedy might be applied. He did not mean to blame the higher law officers of the Crown for the abuses of which they were probably igno-. rant, and for which, perhaps, they might not consider themselves responsible. But the fact was, that worthless persons were sent, or at least went about the country harassing great numbers of honest, creditable, and industrious tradesmen, offering them for sale, and even thrusting upon them, certain articles, with a view to lay the ground for informations against them. This was done, not from any view to protect the revenue, but for the purpose of aggrandizing those who employed such persons for such an object. In the county of Sussex, for instance, persons had been induced to go about persuading tradesmen to purchase certain articles, for the purpose of laying a foundation for informations; and then, when such informations were lodged, the same persons used all their influence with those whom they had entrapped, to induce them to petition to be allowed to compromise, on payment of costs. As he could not anticipate the possibility of any objection being made to his motion, he did not think it necessary to go more at length into the subject at this time. But in order to bring-the subject fairly before the House and the public, he was not aware of any better mode than to move for the number of the Solicitors' bills sent to the Treasury, for the costs of the prosecution of certain specified cases of late occurrence. He doubted whether any such bills were now in existence; but if they were, and could be produced, they ought to be laid on the table of the House. He concluded, therefore, by moving for "the Bills of Costs paid by the Crown in the various Informations filed in the Court of Exchequer, for penalties for breaches of the Customs Laws, against the following defendants:" [here followed the names of twenty persons lately prosecuted as above-mentioned.]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

expressed himself not at all unwilling to afford the hon. member every information which he could reasonably desire on this subject. But it was really too much to expect, that the hon. gentleman should be allowed to bring before the House, as a specimen of the whole matter, some twenty cases, such as he chose to select out of two or three hundred. He had no objection to such a motion generally; but this mode of selection would not bring the matter fairly before the House. He would therefore recommend to the hon. gentleman to adopt some fair principle—such as taking the first twelve or twenty, or the last twelve or twenty cases out of a certain number; and then he would not oppose his motion. But if the hon. member refused to alter his motion in the manner he had stated, he should be compelled to object to it. He could not help, however, remarking on the attempt of the hon. member to vilify the Board of Customs, and the Custom-house officers. He certainly understood that the hon. member had excepted from his censure the higher law officers of the Crown and the commissioners of Customs; but he appeared at the same time to insinuate some censure against the solicitor for the Customs, as well as others, for instigating persons to lodge informations, not with a view to the protection of the revenue, but for the purpose of aggrandizing himself. Now, did not the hon. member know that, for the last three years, the solicitor had derived his emoluments, not from fees on account of prosecutions, but from a fixed salary of 2,000l. a-year; and that the utmost extent to which his income could be increased beyond that, whatever might be the number of prosecutions, did not exceed 500l. a-year? The greatest sum which he could possibly receive, therefore, in all, was only 2,500l. per annum; and it could not be reasonably supposed, that for the mere sake of the500l. beyond the 2,000l., he could be influenced, by dirty and scandalous motives, to increase the number of prosecutions.

Mr. Burrell

said, that there were frequently great hardships in these prosecutions in the Exchequer. The supposed smuggler, for instance, committed the crime on the coast. The Attorney-general filed an information, and it was understood that it was to be tried in the county of Sussex. It turned out, however, that the trial was to be in London. The defendant all this while did not know what witnesses were to be produced against him; nor could he be prepared with them so well as he might be if the trial had taken place in the county where the offence had been committed. Whatever the man might be, this was a harsh proceeding; whether smuggler or not, he ought to have fair play. He did not mean to speak invidiously, but he was informed, that, on the preventive service, there were persons of no very good character, and that on the information of such persons, smugglers had been imprisoned for eighteen months, and then ordered to find security for their good behaviour, and being generally unable to provide such security, they were liable to be imprisoned for life.

The Attorney-General

denied that any injustice had been done in the cases of those persons who had been alluded to by the hon. member. In fact, it was the opinion of the best-informed persons in Sussex, that smuggling offences ought not to be tried by juries of that county; and he had heard the same observation made with respect to Kent. The strength of local prejudice, it was assorted, strongly militated in those places against the course of justice. Those who wished to have the law ameliorated had made every inquiry on the subject; and they were universally met by this answer—"Do not try cases of this nature in the places where the transactions were alleged to have taken place, but let the inquiry go on elsewhere." It was made a matter of strong complaint, that cases which occurred in other counties were tried in Middlesex: but let those who so complained examine the matter, and point out where any real hardship lay? The most ordinary seaman knew perfectly well, that if he offended against the law he would be tried at Westminster. The phrase, that the man so erring would be "Exchequered," was perfectly known and understood. He, therefore, contended, that no harm was done, when the parties who erred were well acquainted with the fact, that their trial would take place in the court of Exchequer. He never knew any individual to come forward and say, when put upon his trial, that he had reason to complain, because he expected to have been tried elsewhere. The hon. mover expressed a great anxiety to convince the House, that, in introducing this motion, he had nothing but the interests of justice in view. It was extraordinary that he should, while thus declaring his own purity of intention, have been so unsparing of his calumnies on others. It had been asserted, that no improvement had been effected with respect to the administration of those laws. Now, it would not be difficult to prove, that a very material improvement, with respect to the administration of the revenue laws, had taken place. Formerly, every case relating to the revenue laws was tried in the court of Exchequer. This was undoubtedly attended with great expense. Many of these cases were now decided before a magistrate; and there was, in consequence, a great abatement of these cases in the court of Exchequer. He must observe, that the labours of the law officers of the Crown, in this department were extremely heavy; such as he believed would scarcely be undertaken by any other gentlemen. He knew not whether the hon. mover had, in his observations, an eye to Essex; but this he knew, that, in the very last case he was connected with, which related to Essex, a large and thumping verdict for the Crown, of between 2,000l. and 3000l. was given. That verdict was obtained against persons who were notorious violators of the law. The information never was carried before the court of Exchequer, unless the penalties were high indeed. When the hon. gentleman talked of prosecutions, or persecutions, as he was pleased to call them, he should like to know how many verdicts the Crown had received within a given time, and how many causes they had lost?

Mr. Bernal

observed, that the measures which had been taken to support the revenue laws had greatly encouraged the race of informers. The Attorney-general must be well acquainted with the fact, that many instances of hardship and oppression had occurred under the system. A fair question arose; namely, what benefit had been derived from a multitude of prosecutions under these laws? Now, it appeared, that in 1825–6, the sum lost by the Crown, or rather by the country, in consequence of these prosecutions, was upwards of 490l., and in 1825, the sum of 897l.was lost in the same manner. There was in those cases no lack of counsel, of agents, and of witnesses; and yet such was the result in spite of all their efforts. If they looked to the account to which he had referred, from January to October, they would perceive the entry with respect to the profits of the Crown to be "nil, nil, nil." In February, 1826, an information was laid against a man for a penalty of 447l. What was the result? Why, he found the entry, as to the Crown, according to custom, "nil;" but the costs were not "nil;" they amounted to 114l., which the public had to pay. This was merely one sample out of a great many. Did the Crown pay the costs or did it not? By the smile on the countenance of the Attorney-general, he supposed the costs were paid by the party prosecuted. Now, nothing could be more unjust than this. Indeed, the whole system was so conducted as to afford facilities to subaltern officers to lay informations against individuals whose pockets, whichever way the case was decided, were sure to suffer.

Mr. Wynn

expressed his surprise at the line of argument adopted by the hon. gentleman. Were actions of the kind to which he had referred to be supported, or decried, only in proportion as they brought money into the public coffers? Were they, because, from various circumstances, they might sometimes fail, to be therefore considered unwise and improper? Because money was not likely to accrue from these prosecutions, was that a reason why individuals who transgressed the law should not be punished, and made examples of? Supposing 490l. to have been expended in costs, was not that sum well laid out, if it deterred others from entering into conspiracies to defraud the revenue.

Mr. Maberly

said, he considered the answer of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as to the imputations against the solicitor of the Customs, complete and triumphant. He trusted, that the right hon. gentleman, seeing how the new and very commendable arrangement respecting the allowance of the solicitor to the Customs had been received by the House, would be induced to place the Excise upon the same footing.

Mr. J. Smith

was of opinion, that the officers employed by government were sometimes very remiss in the performance of their duties, with a view, as it appeared to him, of benefitting by the irregularities which their own negligence permitted. He recollected being in the town of Hastings some time since, when, at mid-day, the town was absolutely blockaded, and a cargo of smuggled goods introduced.

Mr. Herries

said, it was very unjust to make charges against the persons alluded to, as if they were the instigators of the very offences to which they were employed to put an end. He thought that there was not the slightest ground for the accusation that had been made against them. Instead of bringing up cases for trial here, they were anxious to have them settled before the magistrates of the county where they occurred. Much had been said about the profits made by the solicitor of the Customs; but, in the course of two years, he had given up 11,000l, in consequence of his having allowed cases to be decided before magistrates, which otherwise would have been brought in to the Exchequer.

Sir J. Newport

said, that nothing could be worse than the administration of the Excise laws in Ireland. Year after year, some alteration of the existing system had been promised: but the hope was still deferred.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the government were very anxious to carry into effect the recommendations of the revenue committee. Some of them had been attended to; but others could not be effected without a specific act of parliament.

Mr. Curteis

bore testimony to the great leniency with which Excise prosecutions had, in many cases within his knowledge, been conducted.

Mr. C. Thompson

contended, that it was impossible to put an end to smuggling, while the system of prohibitory duties held out such premiums to the smuggler.

Sir C. Burrell

advised, that the discretion lodged in the solicitor of Excise should be controlled; for he believed, that so long as it remained in his power to bring actions at his pleasure, oppressive proceedings would take place.

Mr. D. W. Harvey

complained, that he had been attacked in an unbecoming manner by the chancellor of the Exchequer. He would not, however, be deterred from doing his duty, by any chastisement which the right hon. gentleman, in his official dignity, might think proper to inflict upon him.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

observed, that the hon. gentleman appeared to be sore under the chastisement of which he complained. The hon. gentleman had, on his part, made a severe attack upon officers whose conduct had not deserved it. In repelling that attack, he was not aware that he had offended against any of the hon. gentleman's notions of what he was pleased to term his official dignity.

The motion was then agreed to.