HC Deb 13 April 1831 vol 3 cc1282-4

Lord Nugent, in rising to introduce his motion for bringing in a Bill upon the subject of Oaths, said, he should be able to show, on the best authority, that these Excise and Custom House Oaths were useless, and he thought there could be no doubt that they were worse than useless. The number of oaths taken in the Excise Offices and at the Custom House were most numerous. At one of these departments the oaths amounted within the space of twelve months to the enormous number of 101,596. That was in the Customs; but in the Excise they amounted in the same period to the still more monstrous number of 194,612. When this circumstance was made known to the Treasury, their Lordships addressed both these Boards, inquiring into the necessity of taking these oaths. He would shew the ground on which that rested from the fourth Report of the Commissioners who had been appointed to inquire into the Revenue. That Report stated—"It has been the practice of the Legislature, and adopted in various systems of regulation, in cases where it has been difficult to obtain the object in view, either from the information or from the superintendence of others, to endeavour to attain it by operating upon the conscience of the acting party himself, and by compelling him to take an oath, either as to the truth of a particular fact, or that he has fulfilled, or will fulfil, the stipulations required of him. This species of security has been carried to a great extent, and particularly in the Custom House laws; and to such purposes have oaths been applied, that in many instances they have lost their intended use, and no protection whatever to the revenue is derived from them. It frequently happens at the Custom House, that oaths are required to be taken by persons who are almost necessarily ignorant of the truth of the facts to which they swear: it follows, therefore, that the oath in these cases is considered as a mere matter of form, and neither the person who administers, nor he who takes it, attaches to it the character of the sacred obligation which is entered into. To require such a ceremony, without discrimination, is most mischievous; it obtains no safety for the revenue, and it weakens the influence of this most solemn asseveration in those cases to which it is properly applicable." In the replies to the letters which the Treasury addressed to the Custom House and Excise Boards, it was curious to observe, that the most complete concurrence was observable in them. The Bill which it was his object to introduce to the House was, with respect to many of its clauses at least, drawn up on the authority of the Solicitors to these two Boards. He would now state generally the result of the Bill. The Excise proposed to abolish the majority of the oaths now taken in that department, and the Custom House concurred in that recommendation. In one of the Boards it was proposed to abolish ninety-two out of the ninety-four oaths now prescribed, and both boards recommended the substitution of a Declaration with a pecuniary penalty attached to its violation. In the cases where the name of the Deity was now appealed to, and unhappily in most of them appealed to in vain, it was proposed to substitute a Declaration with a penalty of 100l., if that Declaration should be untruly made. By this means the revenue would be better protected, for now perjury, as far as Excise and Custom House oaths were concerned, could hardly ever be punished, and was, in fact, hardly ever made the subject of prosecution; while, under the proposed Bill, those Boards would have the security of a pecuniary penalty, which might be promptly and, he believed, easily recovered. He moved for leave to bring in a Bill for the purposes which he had thus briefly stated.

Mr. O'Connell

congratulated the country on this Motion having been brought forward by a member of the Government, as the first step towards the abolition of the system of unnecessary swearing. He hoped that this abolition would extend to the oaths taken at the Universities, as well as at the Excise and the Custom House. It was a most laudable measure, only it ought to be followed up, and it should have his hearty support.

Leave was given to bring in the Bill.