HC Deb 13 May 1830 vol 24 cc674-80
Sir J. Macintosh

, in presenting a Petition from 697 of the inhabitants of the City of Edinburgh, praying for the abolition of the Punishment of Death in cases of Forgery, stated, that the signatures of a considerable number of the petitioners were those of men of the most distinguished ability in Edinburgh. There were Clergymen of all denominations, the leading Professors of the University, the chief members of the Bar, and eighteen Bankers, in a city the chief business of which was banking. The latter body of petitioners especially stated their insecurity under the present system of law. He thought that the nature of these petitions, and the classes of men who had signed them, showed that the people of this country were ripe for the abolition of the punishment of death in case of Forgery.

Mr. Williams

said, that on every occasion when this question was discussed, he should support the abolition of the punishment of death; for he was persuaded that it was not for the interest of the bankers that it should be maintained.

The Lord-Advocate

bore testimony to the high respectability of the petitioners, and said, that if the House should be of opinion that the law ought to be altered in this country, he should certainly do his best to introduce the alteration into Scot- land. But he must say, that in his opinion, the law did not accomplish the proposed end of repressing crime. The law was not severely executed in Scotland, for the officer of the Crown there possessed the power of exercising his discretion in putting a restriction upon the infliction of the punishment of death. Since he had been in his present office, he believed he had not severely enforced the law, and he would refer to some returns, which would show in how few cases it had been necessary to carry the law into full effect. From the year 1815 to 1826, the number of persons committed for forgery was 194, out of whom, during the seven first years, only seven suffered death; and during the years 1824, 1825, and 1826, not more than one or two had suffered death. Considering the increase of other crimes in Scotland, these numbers showed that the crime of Forgery was not very extensive there.

Mr. Baring

said, the question was one of great importance, affecting the general feelings of the people on one side, and the interests of very numerous classes of men on the other; and any alteration of the law that should destroy the security of signatures, as respected bills and notes, would be most mischievous. His decision upon the question would depend on what the advocates of the abolition of the punishment of death offered in the way of a secondary punishment. Transportation for seven years would be treating it with too much levity, and transportation for life was a less punishment than for a shorter period. If the remedy were imprisonment, with hard labour, or any other punishment which, in the opinion of mankind, would not convert the offender into a pitied sufferer, he might, perhaps, support it, especially if the offender were taught not to look for an early remission of his punishment. He did not say, that he wished the punishment of death to be inflicted for Forgery, but he would say, that a punishment ought to be inflicted sufficiently severe to operate as a terror to those who would otherwise be inclined to violate the laws, and to attack private property. He must, however, observe, that if this alteration were made in the criminal law, it must be extended further: for he could not see, if they removed the penalty of death from Forgery, how they could retain it in other cases, that of sheep-stealing for instance.

Sir M. W. Ridley

believed the fact to be well known to those who had inquired into the matter, that it generally happened that individuals going out of the country under sentence of transportation, were in a short time better off than they would have been had they remained at home. If transportation were the punishment finally fixed upon in cases of Forgery, he trusted it would be rendered a punishment to be dreaded. Those who committed Forgery were ordinarily of a higher rank than the majority of other offenders: they were persons sensible to the pleasures of society, and in the habit of enjoying amusements: and the House ought to take away from them those pleasures and amusements which formed their enjoyment, and the extravagant use of which probably led to their crimes. He could not dissent from the observation that doubts might be fairly entertained, whether, in a great commercial country like this, the punishment of death in cases of Forgery could be safely done away with. At the same time he admitted the great disinclination which every man who was a sufferer by Forgery felt at prosecuting a fellow-creature for a crime, the punishment of which might be death; and that, he also admitted, made the subject difficult of decision.

Mr. F. Buxton

said, the great object of punishment in cases of Forgery should be the protection of property; but there were hundreds of cases of' Forgery which were not prosecuted, because the punishment was death, which would be prosecuted if the penalty were less: therefore, upon the simple principle of taking the most effectual measures for the protection of property, and not upon any vague idea of humanity, he was a friend to a mitigation of the present punishment. He had in his possession a Petition, signed by 400 individual Bankers, belonging to 200 firms, in which, on the principle of affording further and more efficacious protection to property, they asked for a remission of the punishment of death in cases of Forgery.

Sir J. Newport

admitted, that transportation was a most unsatisfactory punishment in cases of Forgery, as not carrying with it, to the persons likely to commit that offence, those terrifying consequences which a punishment intended to prevent a crime of such magnitude should. Certainly the reluctance at present felt to prosecute would be removed if the punish- ment of death were abolished; and this would be a desirable object to accomplish; but the punishment substituted for that of death should be of a nature to deter men from the commission of the crime. In his opinion, no crime should be punished with death but murder, burglary, or offences involving a violation of property, accompanied by violence to the person. As matters now stood, in nineteen cases out of twenty, the law by its severity defeated its own object. Persons were deterred from prosecuting by the amount of punishment; and this being the case, and a probability of escape afforded, offenders over-calculated the chances in their favour, and were thus encouraged to commit crimes. Certainty of punishment, even though the punishment were comparatively light, had a much greater effect in preventing crime, than severity of punishment with a chance of escape. The reluctance of injured parties to prosecute, and of juries to convict, arose from the severity of the law, and led to an increase of crime.

Sir T. Baring

thought, that Forgery was an offence which might be suppressed more effectually than at present, by what we were in the habit of considering inferior punishments,—transportation or solitary confinement for any great length of time. If so, the purposes of humanity would be attained, and crime checked. His hon. relative was mistaken in his opinion of the nature of transportation, which, however, he believed to have been formerly what was described. Transportation was then regarded by the lower classes as a change from misery to comparative enjoyment; but now the case was different: convicts were put to hard labour, and their condition was rendered anything rather than too comfortable. He believed that nine persons out of ten who committed. Forgery escaped through the feelings of the sufferers, and their reluctance to enforce a severe law.

Lord J. Russell

agreed with the hon. Baronet, that at present transportation was a punishment very different from what it once was, and thought it might be rendered a punishment of great severity. Certainly it was no sufficient excuse for a government to adopt the punishment of death, because it had not succeeded in making transportation severe enough. He was satisfied that, under proper regulations, it would be a more efficacious punishment for Forgery than the punishment of death. The argument of the hon. member for Callington, when he contended that we ought not to remit the capital punishment for Forgery, as we still retained the punishment of death for Sheep-stealing, presented no serious obstacle to the desired change. We could remit the punishment in both cases. He should support any measure that might be introduced with a view to mitigate the existing law.

Mr. O'Connell

supported the prayer of the Petition, and stated, that he had been long of opinion, that the punishment of death should be abolished in all cases of offences unaccompanied by actual violence. He should give his decided support to any measure for the abolition of capital punishments in cases of Forgery.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, it had been stated that the severity of the law prevented prosecutions in cases of Forgery; but many persons might be deterred from the commission of the crime by apprehensions of the severity of the punishment. The effect might be injurious to property if the law were too suddenly relaxed. On this point he admitted it might be difficult to form a precise opinion, but the experiment would certainly be hazardous in a country where such a large amount of property was at stake. In his opinion, his right hon. friend (Sir R. Peel) acted wisely in proposing gradually to remit the punishment of death, first abolishing it as applicable to one class of forgeries, thus giving an opportunity to conjecture what might be the effect of withdrawing capital punishments in other cases of the crime, by observing the consequences of the mitigation in a single instance. This was the safest, and, he was sure, would ultimately prove the most humane course.

Mr. Hume

said, if it were considered desirable, with respect to one branch of forgeries, to mitigate our sanguinary law, he could not see why we should make trial of one portion, and leave the other untouched. The mischief of our laws consisted in the uncertainty of punishment, arising from their unusual severity. He was of opinion, that the punishment of death should not be inflicted except for murder or treason, which latter crime might involve many deaths. The right hon. Gentleman, who had effected so many improvements in the criminal law, ought to carry the principle still further. If evil should arise from a mitigation of the present system, we had the power of reverting to the plan of severity. In America capital punishments were inflicted only in cases of murder. Let Gentlemen inspect the calendars of crime in that country, and it would be found that America was infinitely above us in point of freedom from offences,—a powerful argument in favour of a merciful code of laws. He hoped the House would support any measure that might be brought forward to lessen the sanguinary character of laws which were a disgrace to the country.

Mr. Lennard

observed, that the right hon. Gentleman had only to look at the petitions proceeding from the monied interests which had been presented in favour of the abolition of capital punishments in cases of Forgery, in order to see how ill-grounded were his apprehensions. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the hazard of relaxing our present system, but did he perceive no danger in statements being made, as they had been, and would be, on the part of bankers, expressive of their determination not to prosecute in cases of Forgery while the law continued in its present state? Was there no danger that such declarations and such a practice (both growing out of the seventy of our code) might increase the crime of Forgery? He thought that the statement made by the Lord Advocate furnished an argument in favour of a mitigation of punishment. The learned Lord said, that during twelve years, the crime of Forgery had not increased in Scotland; and he also stated, that although the punishment of death in such cases nominally existed in that country, yet that it was, in point of fact and practice, abolished. Did this state of things furnish any grounds for apprehensions, that the monied interests would be less protected than at present, if capital punishments in cases of Forgery were abolished? He had no doubt we might substitute a more effectual preventive for the crime of Forgery than was afforded by the punishment of death. He should have a variety of petitions to present on the subject, calling for the abolition of capital punishment, and he had received letters from many bankers, expressive of their disapproval of the existing system.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, that the present law was equally impolitic and inhuman; it prevented prosecutions and encouraged the offence. Whenever a motion should be made to do away with capital punishment he should support it.

Mr. Warburton

said, the present law was decidedly bad, because it was contrary to the feelings of the people; even bankers would not carry it into execution. There was a committee of bankers established, before which, every banker who was a member of it was expected, as a matter of duty, to bring all forgeries that might be committed upon him, in order that the culprits might be prosecuted, but he knew that bankers did not act up to the spirit of this regulation, and why did they not? It was because the punishment was too great. Every day's experience proved, that the law as it stood was bad. It was the certainty, not the severity of punishment, that prevented crime.

Sir Charles Forbes

expressed his concurrence in what had fallen from the Lord Advocate as to Scotland, and begged leave to take that opportunity of expressing his approbation of the manner in which that learned Lord executed the duties of his office.

Mr. Robinson

said, that it was the opinion of merchants, bankers, and others most interested, that the law did not afford protection to the banker and commercial man,—because the severity of it prevented prosecutions. For this reason, if for no other, the severity of the law ought to be mitigated.

My. Marry at

knew from observation and personal experience that the severity of the punishment prevented prosecutions in nine cases out of ten. The case of the bankers was a hard one. Their feelings would not allow them to prosecute while the penalty of the offence was death; and thus they were without protection against this dangerous crime of forgery.

Mr. Brownlow

said, that he concurred in what had been stated in favour of the abolition. He had a Petition to present from the Bankers of Belfast, who expressed similar opinions. They stated that they had a great interest in preventing the crime of forgery, but that in consequence of the severity of the punishment, they were prevented from prosecuting. Thus the law afforded no protection whatever to property.

Petition to be printed.