HC Deb 15 February 1831 vol 2 cc594-601
Lord Althorp

said, in bringing forward the Motion of which he had given notice, it was not necessary for him, at that late hour, to press on the House the evil produced by the Game-laws, according to their present enactments. No part of the legislative volume had produced more evil, by inducing to crime, by the infliction of misery, and by the provocation of vice; and the number of able men that were constantly committed to prison, and there learned all sorts of vices, sufficiently showed the bad working of the system. One of the principal causes of this was, that the Game-laws, on the principle which now regulated them, were contrary to the feelings and opinions of the people of England. Instead of giving the owner of land a full right over his own property, the principle of the Game-laws gave ex- tensive privileges to one particular class. Although it was well known that no one, under the present laws, could preserve game, unless he was the owner of property; yet persons who were the owners of such property had no legal rights to the game upon it. His object, therefore, was, to get rid of these anomalies, and, by placing- the laws on a more reasonable basis, to conciliate the feelings of the country towards them, giving them at the same time an equal chance of being willingly obeyed by the people. When the member for Buckinghamshire (The Marquis of Chanciest had proposed to bring forward his bill, he (Lord Althorp) had offered that noble Lord the assistance of the Government on the subject; but when the amendments the Government proposed were submitted to that noble Lord, Instated that they were such as to make his an entirely new bill, and he therefore declined the proposal. At that late hour of the night he did not intend to argue tin: question at length; he would, however, state the principal regulations which lie intended to propose; and though there certainly was a very great difference between the two bills, yet he was bound to say, that his Bill coincided in many points with that of the noble Lord. The noble Lord proposed to repeal all the laws which at present existed with respect to game, and so did he. The great difference between his proposition and that of the noble Lord's was, that the noble Lord preserved a qualification, which he proposed to get rid of. He meant to do away with all qualifications whatever, and allow any person, on paying a sum for a license, which should not be of a very large amount, to be qualified to kill game. The noble Lord permitted the sale of game, so did his Bill. The noble Lord secured the owners of game against fraud, and in this be concurred with the noble Lord, by compelling all the dealers in game to take out a license. He thought it was not desirable to allow every person to sell game who pleased, without any control, as that might encourage depredations on property, and therefore he retained the licensing system. The mode by which he proposed to protect the landowner was, by the law of trespass. He would allow the landowners to carry trespassers on their property before two Justices, by whom they might be summarily punished. There was one important part of the present law intended to prevent night poaching, which was, he admitted, a great evil; but he believed that increasing the severity of the law had much tended to promote battles and bloodshed. The noble Lord, in his bill, proposed that night poaching should be punished, for the first offence by three months' confinement, and at the end of that, security was to be found for good behaviour; for the second offence the noble Lord proposed six months' imprisonment, also, with security at the end of the confinement; and for the third offence he proposed that it should be regarded as a misdemeanour, and the offender be liable to imprisonment or transportation for seven years. In his (Lord Althorp's) Bill he proposed to make the punishment fur the first two offences somewhat higher. For the first offence he proposed four months imprisonment; for the second offence eight months; and for the third offence he proposed that it should be treated as a misdemeanour, and punished with two years' imprisonment, but not by transportation. He left out that part which required security, because it was plain that to demand security from persons of the description of those who usually committed these offences, was to condemn them to imprisonment for an indefinite period. That was not, he knew, the noble Lord's intention, but that would he the result of demanding security. These were his propositions, and they would, he believed, give persons of all classes and conditions the amusement of sporting. He had thus stated, the difference between his bill and that of the noble Lord. There was, however, another difference, which he had forgotten. By the noble Lord's Bill, if three persons were found together in the fields by night they were rendered liable to transportation for fourteen years. That clause he had wholly omitted. Having thus stated the principal objects of his Bill, he had only to move for leave to bring it in.

Mr. Bethcil

said, that, he approved of the measure. He was satisfied that the Game-laws never could be reconciled to the feelings of the people, unless all qualifications whatever were done away. He could say, as a Magistrate, that the present laws were so severe that they could not be executed, and if executed, would do more harm than good.

Sir J. Shelley

stated, that he was sure the noble Lord would find himself deceived in his expectations of the good he antici- pated, but he would not oppose the noble Lord's motion.

Mr. Fyler

expressed great satisfaction at the undertaking of the noble Lord. He was glad to see the measure taken up by the Government, and trusted that it would be successful.

Mr. Littleton

expressed an opinion in favour of the Bill, but suggested that there should be two licenses—one of little cost, to allow a man to shoot over his own land, and another, to cost a larger sum, to allow him to shoot generally. If a high license were imposed upon a small freeholder, it would operate as a prohibition.

Colonel Wood

objected to the two licenses proposed by the hon. Member, and wished the Bill to be made as simple as possible. He cordially concurred in the principles of the Bill, and hoped that it might come to a happy issue. He suggested to the noble Lord the propriety of dividing the Bill into two parts, separating the money clauses from all the parts that merely related to game. If the noble Lord retained the money clauses with the Bill for regulating game, and if any amendment were made in the measure in the other House, the whole Bill would be lost. He, therefore, recommended a division.

Sir J. Sebright

gave his hearty concurrence to the measure. The Game-laws were so bad, that any alteration in them must be for the better; but till to-night he had never heard a plan which gave him full satisfaction upon the point.

Lord J. Russell

thought it would not be advisable, at the time of doing away the qualification, to lower the license; on the contrary, he thought the price of the game certificate should he raised, and he believed it was the intention of his noble friend to propose to raise it to 5l. in the Committee. As to the money clauses, he hoped, before the Bill proceeded so far as the other House, that the two Houses would come to an understanding about their privileges, which would remove the obstacles to passing such bills.

An Honourable Member concurred in the propriety of making game saleable, and in making dealers take out licenses.

Sir R. Peel

feared, that in discussing the subject of the Game-laws, we were apt to be too sanguine in our anticipations of the advantages to be derived from a particular change. He was afraid we overlooked the love of enterprise and amuse- ment, which rendered the pursuit of game attractive to the common people as well as to their superiors. It was exceedingly difficult to rind an adequate remedy for the evils that existed under the present system; at the same time, he thought the Game-laws so defective in principle, that a proposition for a change ought to be listened to with attention; but he again cautioned the House against entertaining extravagant expectations. The noble Lord said, he would do away with the law relating to qualifications, and it was so absurd, that it was impossible to say a single word in its favour. It was not exactly fair however to say, that the noble Lord's plan would confer the same privilege upon the small as upon the large proprietor. The man who possessed only a single acre must pay 5l. for a certificate, while he who had 5,000 acres paid no more. Now, to the former, the permission to kill game was no privilege at such a cost; the privilege not being worth the price paid for its enjoyment. He thought the remedy of the hon. member for Staffordshire—namely, to have two licenses,—impracticable;—difficult if not impossible to be acted on, and vexatious in practice. He did not know, too, why a man might not shoot over his neighbour's land, if that neighbour pleased, without paying additionally. He feared, that after the noble Lord's plan should have been adopted, much the same temptation would exist with respect to the class of poachers as at present. Nay, it was possible that this measure, however well intended, might add to the vexation of the present system,—that it would multiply the number of game preservers, embody a new class of supporters of the Game-laws, and occasion greater jealousy than now existed. As a friendly opponent of the noble Lord, he recommended him not to repeal the Act prohibiting night poaching, and the assemblage of great bodies of armed men by night—a monstrous and dangerous evil. It was possible, that legalizing the sale of game might afford some encouragement to poaching. He approved of doing away the qualification and of legalizing the sale of game; but he hoped the noble Lord would not be too precipitate.

An Honourable Member was glad the qualification was done away, and he should support the Bill, because he wished to see the Game-laws simplified. The open sale of game might have the effect of putting down poaching, as legalizing the sale of venison had put a stop to the illegal destruction of deer.

Lord Morpeth

returned thanks to his noble friend for the very sound and satisfactory measure which he had introduced. It afforded one more proof, in addition to the many already given of his noble friend's disposition to use his newly acquired power, he would not say at the expense of the few, but he would say for the benefit of the many. He thought his noble friend had acted well in not confining himself to petty changes or modifications of a bad system, and approved of his deciding that an amusement congenial to the human mind (as the right hon. Baronet had intimated) should not be made the monopoly of any particular class of men. He entirely approved of the principle of the measure, and should give the Bill his most cordial support in every stage of its progress.

Mr. Weyland

supported the proposition. He was of opinion that the Bill would considerably diminish, if not altogether do away with, the evil of poaching. When the market for game was released from its present trammels, it would be regulated like any other market. He was confident, too, that the proposed measure would in no wise interfere with the sports of the country gentlemen. He believed, however, that it would put an end to preserves, for as the small landowners would be able to kill game, they would destroy that which their rich neighbours wished to preserve.

The Attorney General

observed, that considering the Bill diminished the temptation to poaching, and got rid of qualifications, and that it was desirable that it should meet with no opposition in another place, he wished that the tone of discouragement which had been used had not been adopted. An important object of the Bill was, to do away with the severe and cruel punishment of those who were guilty of poaching—a crime which was the natural offspring of bad laws. It was a crime which the ordinary laws were competent to punish, and therefore there was no need of enacting perpetual extraordinary laws. Justice was, in fact, defeated by the reluctance of Juries to convict under those laws. At the Quarter Sessions, indeed, an opposite feeling was supposed to exist; the Magistrates there were suspected, and not unnaturally, of leaning to the severest punishment, from personal feeling, not from a principle of justice. Such a system tended to confound in people's minds the notions of right and wrong; and for these reasons he trusted that a genuine and hearty support would be given to the Bill.

Sir T. Fremantle

denied, that personal feelings swayed Magistrates at Quarter Sessions. His experience was very much in favour of the leniency of the Quarter Sessions; and he knew that prosecutors preferred carrying their cases to the Assizes rather than to the Quarter Sessions. He was surprised that the noble Lord had not modified the bill of the noble Lord, the member for Bucks (Lord Chandos), which had been read a second time, instead of introducing a new bill. He regretted that he should feel obliged to oppose the Bill.

Mr. Benett

believed, that the present Bill would give satisfaction to the country. He objected to the raising of the licenses, as it would take the privilege of sporting from the small occupiers of land; he hoped that point would be reconsidered. The legalising the sale of game would have the effect of rendering game too cheap to make poaching profitable. He denied, that Magistrates at Quarter Sessions were actuated by personal feelings, or acted with severity, in administering the Game-laws. For his own part, he never sat on any trial of a poaching case.

Mr. Hunt

said, that the only good part of the Bill was the repeal of the old law; in other respects he did not see that the noble Lord could expect much from his Bill. As to doing away with poaching, it was quite out of the question, so long as there were large game preserves, where pheasants ran about as tame as poultry; the temptation was too great for labourers employed in the roads at 2s. 6d. and 3s. a week. The only mode of getting rid of poaching was to do away with the temptation. If the noble Lord could prevent game preserves, and disperse game over the land, making the farmers who fed the game the natural preservers of it, they would then have sufficient for their friends and their landlords, and would themselves prevent poaching. He disapproved of the power given to arrest unqualified persons, and take them before a Magistrate. When hot-headed young men, having guns in their hands, were placed in that situation, there would be great danger of bloodshed. The more lenient the measure, the less disposed would the poachers be to go in great bodies to resist it. Lord Radnor had adopted his (Mr. Hunt's) plan, which was to turn off all his gamekeepers, and by doing so he had plenty of game for himself and It is friends, and had put an end to all poaching. He thought that charging 5l. for a license was likely to produce a deficiency in the revenue rather than any increase of it; and he was sure that 2l. would bring in a much larger sum.

Mr. Philip Howard

heartily concurred in the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, which was a repeal of the most odious remnant of the feudal code, and would be hailed with satisfaction by the country, and by no body of men more than by the yeomanry of Cumberland, a numerous and independent class, who truly, as Shakespeare says, Show the mettle of their pastures. The only part from which he must dissent was, the introduction of a high scale of license; because, to offer the privilege of shooting, on paying 5l. to those possessing, for instance, merely 80l. or 100l., amounted nearly to a refusal of the boon; and if such was the feeling of the House, he trusted his Majesty's Ministers would allow that clause to be altered before the Bill was committed.

Lord Althorp

made a short reply. He did not expect that the Bill would do away with poaching altogether, but he thought that it would greatly diminish it. As to the licenses, the proper time for discussing that point would be in the Committee. He pledged himself to no opinion. When the Bill went into committee, the House might adopt his proposition of 5l., or decide on a smaller sum.

In answer to a question from Sir R. Peel, the noble Lord said, that although he had decided upon retaining the power of summary conviction, he doubted whether it would be proper to give the power of arrest to preservers of game. He also said, that he did not mean to extend the provisions of the Bill to Ireland.

Leave given, Bill brought in, and read a first time.