HC Deb 29 September 1831 vol 7 cc837-48
Mr. Stanley

rose to call the consideration of the House to this subject, with a view to a speedy settlement of a question which had already engrossed much time and attention. He did not intend to do more in the present Session, than merely to submit to the House the nature of the measure he at present felt disposed to introduce with regard to Grand Juries, and Grand Jury Presentments in Ireland. He had not distinctly and positively determined upon the provisions of the measure he should introduce, because as yet he did not feel fully informed upon all the details of this important subject. He was speaking on a matter with which he was not practically acquainted, but he spoke in the presence of those who were acquainted with it, and should most probably receive the benefit of their better information. In what he now proposed to do, he followed the principles which common sense seemed to indicate, which appeared to be fully borne out by the evidence that had been taken on this subject, but he feared it would be found impossible for him at present to do adequate justice to this important question. The constitution of Grand Juries, their powers, and the presentments they made, had, year after year, been the subject of complaint in that House, yet no measure for remedying the defects of the system had been laid on its Table. The matter had been the subject of discussion so long ago as the time when the right hon. member for Tamworth held the situation which he (Mr. Stanley) had now the honour to fill. The right hon. Baronet had himself stated that fact. There had been Committees appointed to investigate the subject in the years 1815, 1816, 1822, and 1825, and the latter of these had directed the attention of the Government to the Grand Jury laws, and to the fact, that though complaints of them had long existed, no remedy had been proposed, but that the defects had been allowed to continue unaltered, which the Committee recommended they should no longer be permitted to do. Even after that report and that recommendation, nothing had been done in the matter. The consequence of the Grand Jury presentments under the present system was, a large augmentation of the taxation of the counties of Ireland; but then, in answer to that objection, it was urged, that the produce of this taxation was expended in the internal improvement of the country. If that was the fact, it would at first sight seem an advantage. The internal improvement of a country might be, under some circumstances, an evidence of the increased prosperity of the country—of its power to bear an increased pressure; but, under other circumstances, it might be an evidence of no such thing; or, at least, the advantage of the internal improvement might not compensate for the increased pressure at the cost of which it was obtained. He feared that in this instance the latter was the case with Ireland. Still, however, all the expenditure that was complained of, could not fairly be laid to the charge of the Grand Jury. From 750,000l. expended in this manner, there was to be deducted a sum of 360,000l., over which the Grand Jury had no control. He ought here to observe, for the information of those who were not acquainted with the internal affairs of Ireland, that the Grand Juries of that country could not be compared with the bodies that were known by the same name in this country. The composition of the two, and the rules that governed them, together with the power they had to exercise, and the duties they were called on to perform, were quite different. The disposal of the criminal charges in their country was but a small part of the business of an Irish Grand Jury; they had a considerable share in the regulation and control of the whole of the internal business of the county. They regulated its civil concerns fully as much, if not more, than they decided upon its criminal business; they determined upon what public works were to be performed; what was the price to be paid for them; and they taxed the public for that payment; but they did not pay the burthen which they thus imposed on the county. The works that were to be performed—the payment that was to be made in respect of those works—the prices at which the labour and materials were to be furnished, were all determined upon by the Grand Jury, and determined on by them in secret, and without the check of responsibility, and all the varied and multiplied labours that fell to the lot of a Grand Jury, were performed within the short space of three or four days only. Under such a system it was impossible that the duty should be performed with satisfaction to the country; it was next to impossible that it should escape from suspicion—unjust suspicion, perhaps, in some cases, but still suspicion in all; and it was absolutely impossible that the country should believe all these duties were well, even if they were honestly performed. As a proof of the sort of business performed by the Grand Jury, he should refer to the returns from six counties, which he had taken indiscriminately, and in which it appeared, that in the course of one year the average number of indictments and presentments disposed of by the Grand Jury in these counties amounted to 5,369. The average number of days during which the Grand Jury sat was three or four, so that the average number of presentments and indictments disposed of by each Grand Jury amounted to 244 in that short space of time. He would ask, whether any man could believe it possible that 244 subjects, many of them of the deepest interest, and all requiring careful examination, could be properly disposed of within the short space of four days? The fact was, that the system was one that depended entirely on the credit which one Grand Juryman gave to the representations of another. One Grand Juryman from one part of the county said that a certain thing was necessary to be done; then another, from a different part, said that something else was required in his district. They said to each other, "give me credit for what I say, and I will give you credit for what you say." Each did give the other credit; and in that manner the complicated business of the county was despatched. This system of combination was carried on without any dishonest intentions on the part of the Grand Juries, and was the necessary consequence of the amount of business they had to perform, and the short space of time in which they were assembled for that purpose. In consequence of the same causes, the Grand Juries had subdivided themselves into so many distinct divisions—each for a separate part of the county they were all met to regulate. Two gentlemen, perhaps, came from one barony, and all the business of that barony was left in their hands; one gentleman came from another, and its affairs were in like manner intrusted solely to his management. The great body took the representations of each particular individual for true, because they had neither leisure nor the means of information to form a judgment on them; and in the end, the system of Grand Jury presentments amounted to nothing more nor less than a mode of carrying into effect, at the public expense, improvements suggested by private and individual interest. The Grand Jury fixed the work that was to be done, the workmen that were to be employed upon it, the price that was to be paid; and then he wished to know, what were the motives that would make them sparing in the application of the public money? First, who were the persons of whom the Grand Jury was formed? They were generally selected from the landed proprietors of the county, but the absence of the landed proprietors was often supplied by their agents, who represented the absentees, and by inferior persons, who sometimes were necessarily called in to complete the required number. The taxes imposed by the Grand Jury were not paid by these persons, but by the occupying tenants of the land. It might, he knew, be said, that though paid in the first instance by the occupying tenants, the expense ultimately came on the landlords, in the shape of diminished rent; but that did not always happen. When a tenant held a lease for twenty-one years, every annual augmentation of the burthens of the county fell upon the occupying tenant, and was never reimbursed by the landlord. He repeated, that these evils must be expected under such a system as this, where the Grand Jury had neither time nor information to guide them, but where, even if they had both, there was not that check upon them which the receiving of evidence on these matters publicly would afford. In consequence of this, there was a general opinion abroad that a system of favouritism prevailed in the choice of the persons selected to perform the work thus resolved on by the Grand Jury. The works, too, were often done in a slovenly manner—the accounts of the expenses were lax—there was no check on the expenditure—the works were often undertaken, not for public advantage, but in many cases for private benefit alone. As a proof of this, he would mention a case that had occurred in the county of Mayo [hear, hear]; he meant nothing with reference to the hon. member for Mayo, who was crying "hear, hear," behind him. He took it from the evidence. "I know," said the witness, "one case where work was done under the pretence of making a bridge, which could be of no public convenience where it was placed; it was intended to be made an embankment; when the work was completed it was ready to fall, and scarcely had the account of the money expended in its construction been furnished before it did fall." The House would most probably ask, how a bridge could be converted into an embankment?—the answer was easy and simple; "by stopping up the arch, so as to prevent the sea from flowing throught it, and then by suffering the sea to pass along by it to another level." To be sure, if a work could be made to answer the purposes of both bridge and embankment by one expense, it would be a piece of economy; but it had not that merit, for there was no road leading to it on either side. The witness, in his account of the matter, added— "There was no road intended to be made, and I imagine there was no use for a road there, as there was a bridge within a quarter of a mile of the place." It was to be hoped that such instances as these were rare [hear, hear]. He did not know the meaning of that cheer—did the hon. Member behind him mean to deny the truth of the statement?

Mr. Dominick Browne

Oh ! I approve it entirely.

Mr. Stanley

said, that was more than he did—for he disapproved of it.

Mr. Dominick Browne

I mean, I approve of what the right hon. Gentleman says—I disapprove of the system.

Mr. Stanley

continued: The Special Session might be some check to these abuses, but that the Grand Jury afterwards possessed the power of reversing the decisions of the Special Sessions. To remedy these evils, he proposed to introduce a measure which, he acknowledged, was not now fully matured, but which would present something tangible as a cure for these abuses. He should introduce the Bill, and get it printed, with the view of getting information on the subject. In the first place, his Bill would repeal and consolidate from sixty-five to seventy Acts of Parliament, and would become a sort of manual for Grand Juries, containing a complete summary of their duties, and a guidance for them in the civil business of their county. In the first instance, he proposed to separate the civil from the criminal business in the hands of the Grand Jury. One arrangement which he had to propose was, that all public works, before they went to the Grand Jury, should be presented to the Magistrates in Sessions, and that they should be allowed a negative on the subject; and he also proposed to take away from Grand Juries the power of passing presentments which any Special Session should have declared to be unnecessary. It was also to be enacted, that the whole of the Special Session presentments was to be sent to the Secretary of the Grand Juries, who was to give notice of the amount of business to the High Sheriff, and who, upon that notice, would have to fix a day (not less than three days, and not more than ten, after) on which the business was to commence. With respect to the qualification for a Grand Juror, he had not made up his mind as to that; and he should, therefore, propose no further qualification than that nominal one which existed already. He also proposed that it should be mandatory on the High Sheriff to select persons from each barony to serve on the Grand Juries; and that, of the twenty-three Grand Jurors first named, there should be one at least from each barony and half-barony. Another of his propositions was, that in every county there should be appointed one or more Surveyors, to be examined by an unpaid Board, and to be attached to the different counties, and remove able on a complaint from the Grand Jury. These appointments he proposed should be invested in the Lord Lieutenant; and he did so, because, as there would be great responsibility attached to the office, he thought it better that they should emanate from that high authority than from the local Grand Juries. Another of his proposals was, that the Grand Jury, having been summoned and sworn for the despatch of civil business, should sit in open Court, and that the evidence before them should also be given in public; though, should they consider deliberation to be necessary, there could be no harm in their retiring for that purpose into a private room, and subsequently giving their decision again in open Court. With respect to the public works, he proposed that they should all be executed by contract—that special tenders should be given in, and that, unless there was some serious objection, the lowest tender should be accepted, the contractors being compelled to pay by money payments all those whom they might employ under such tenders. He likewise proposed to do away with the office of Supervisor, as well as that of the Overseer of Roads, and to invest the whole of their power in the contractors, with a controlling influence over them in the Surveyors. He also proposed to abolish the mode of accounting by affidavit. It had been suggested that the Grand Jury ought to be an elected body, in order that those who imposed the taxes might be chosen by those who had to pay the taxes; but he thought that, as there would be payments to be made in the neighbourhood where the Grand Juries were, the making of them an elected body would lead to jobbing; and that the only fair way of making the tax-imposers tax-payers would be, to provide that the county cess should be charged in all future leases, not on the occupying tenant, but on the landlord who was in possession of the property. To this general arrangement, however, he proposed the exception, that in the event of the country being in a state of disturbance, certain charges should be payable by the tenant, and he did this for the purpose of impressing on their minds that it was their interest to endeavour to put down disturbance. With regard to the presentments for the repair and making of new roads, it was but fair, upon the same principle, that those who derived the benefit should bear the expense. He proposed, therefore, to fix upon the landlord, and not upon the tenant, the payment of all charges for the repair and making of roads. He had then gone through the principal points of the Bill which he proposed to introduce. He was aware that he had done so very imperfectly and inadequately. He was aware that much of what he had laid down might be open to improvement; at the same time, however, it would be a very considerable improvement if, for a system of secrecy, a system of publicity were substituted—if, for a system founded upon party prejudice and individual interest one were introduced calculated to work equally for the good of all—if a system of favouritism were superseded by one of impartiality—if, for a system of affidavit, one of verbal testimony publicly given in an open Court, came into practice, and, finally, if for the system which exempted the Grand Jury from the taxes they laid on others, the House established a system which would make those who imposed the taxes, and benefitted by them, pay them from their own pockets. Whatever might be the fate of the measure, or into whosoever hands it might hereafter fall, it would at least be satisfactory to him, that he had been so far more favoured than his predecessors, that he had been allowed to lay upon the Table of the House a measure which he believed, would greatly amend and improve the system of Grand Juries in Ireland. He had introduced the subject with the deepest sense of its importance, and of his own incompetence and inadequacy properly to discharge the task which his official situation imposed upon him, and he had only to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Grand Jury-laws of Ireland.

Mr. Wyse

concurred in the opinion of the right hon. Secretary as to the necessity of an alteration of the present system; but he could not help differing from him as to some of the means by which he hoped to effect that improvement. As to the regulation of having all the business transacted in open Court—when he considered that even in that House, open as it was to the control of the Press, and subject to the inspection of the public, enormous abuses had formerly existed in the management of the public money, he feared that they must look to some other cause than the mere want of publicity to account for the evil. With all the precautions proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, the grand evil would remain. Why was one part of a county assessed and another not? Why were the Grand Jury selected from one district, and not from another? No effectual amendment could be achieved until they applied to the Grand Jury system, the same reform which they were now adopting in the legislative body, and gave to every person paying taxes a voice in the election of those who were to impose them. Not that he would have the Grand Jury, as a judicial body, elected. There was then no other alternative than to separate the judicial from the financial functions of the Grand Jury. He should be glad to see in each county a County Board, distinct from the Grand Jury, with full powers to administer the financial affairs of the county. This plan was adopted with the most beneficial effects in other countries, and particularly in the Netherlands. The people of Ireland were bent upon one object—namely, justice, and they could not conceive that that could be obtained if the control of the public money were given to an oligarchy, however abuses might be checked or controlled. The right hon. Gentleman would do some good, and he thanked him for it; but the right hon. Gentleman was mistaken if he imagined that this Bill would satisfy the people of Ireland.

Mr. Hunt

expressed his opinion, that this plan, brought forward after nine months' preparation, instead of getting rid of the Grand Jury system, which no one had described in such hard terms as the right hon. Secretary himself, was only after all an alteration, an amelioration they might call it if they pleased, but in fact it was nothing more or less than a bad system made easy. He very much doubted whether the plan would give satisfaction to the Irish public.

Sir John Milley Doyle

thought it impossible for human ingenuity to devise any system so ruinous to morals as the present Grand Jury system of Ireland. He should be glad if the plan of his right hon. friend had gone further than it did. He should vote for this measure, because he thought that any change must be for the better. The present was not the fit time to discuss the details, but he should be prepared to offer some remarks upon them at the proper opportunity.

Sir Robert Bateson

congratulated the country upon having at last some remedy proposed for the abuses which all parties admitted to exist. He should be ready to give any assistance in his power to forward so desirable an object. He thought it better to endeavour to improve the system, if possible, than at once to abolish it, and adopt a mere visionary scheme, the advantages of which existed only in the imagination of Gentlemen. He thought the right hon. Secretary had rather overcharged the picture he had drawn; at least, on the Grand Juries which he had attended, there were precautions taken to prevent fraud, with which the right hon. Secretary appeared quite unacquainted. He was willing to give the Bill a fair discussion, and should support those parts of it which he approved of. He was pleased that the Government had taken up the subject; and though he did not expect the proposed Bill would remove all the evils arising out of the present system, he was glad to see a beginning made, and he doubted not but it would lead to other measures advantageous to Ireland. Much had hitherto been promised, but very little performed for that country.

Mr. Henry Grattan

joined with other Gentlemen from Ireland in returning his thanks to the right hon. Secretary for this Bill. He considered that it was high time some alteration for the better took place, as it was admitted that great abuses had existed, and were known to exist, for the last thirty years. He, however, thought that the right hon. Secretary had somewhat over-garnished his statement, and it was not by crying down all parts of a system which had been adopted for a century that the new Bill was to produce every remedy, He approved of that part of the proposed Bill, which assessed the landlord instead of the tenant. He had brought in a Bill for this express purpose three years ago, but it had been rejected. This alteration would, in his opinion, remove a portion of the evils; but he certainly disapproved of any contemplated plan of electing the Jurors. The right hon. Gentleman was only making an alteration in this system; for the Grand Jurors were also Magistrates, and they would, under the Bill of the right hon. Gentleman, do that as Magistrates which they now did as Grand Jurors. He admitted that it would be a great improvement if the civil and criminal duties of Jurors were made distinct from each other. He also considered that the charge of jobbing was not to be laid to the individuals who had to perform the duties of Jurors, but to the system existing in this country. The great instrument of taxation was that House, which, by one of its bills—that to establish the police—laid a heavier tax on the counties of Ireland than was laid on by all the Grand Juries of Ireland for a series of years. The Bill would certainly tend to correct many notorious abuses, but it was not precisely the system he wished to see adopted.

Mr. Leader

said, the present Grand Jury system was only calculated to support hereditary patronage. Many individuals, it was well known, would never have attended the Assizes but for this circumstance. He agreed with the hon. Member who spoke last in wishing to see the fiscal separated from the criminal duties. Many great abuses undoubtedly had existed, and he felt happy in seeing that Government had taken up the subject, and they were likely to be abolished. He wished to see a set of Commissioners appointed to look after the roads, and he wished the people to have a voice in the election of those who disposed of their property, but he was afraid it would be a long time before such improvements were extended to Ireland.

Mr. Blackney

was also aware of the great abuses existing, but doubted the efficacy of the present Bill to remove them.

Mr. Ruthven

wished to understand, in the alterations that were proposed in the Grand Jury system, what arrangements were to be made with regard to the parliamentary business of the Assizes. As to the appointment of County Surveyors, he hoped the expense of that office, although he believed it was necessary, was not to be paid by the counties: he very much regretted that any circumstance should have induced the Government to postpone the consideration of this important subject to so late a period, and then not be prepared with a complete measure.

Mr. Sheil

did not altogether understand how the money was to be advanced, and the estimates made. Were the Commissioners to determine as to what was necessary for the completion of the works, without the power of intervention on the part of the Grand Jury?

Mr. Crampton

said, an arrangement of that sort was the only security they could have, that the public money should not be thrown away on useless undertakings. It was absurd to begin works without the means of completing them. It was positively necessary that the Grand Jury should be compelled to complete works which they had induced the Commissioners to commence.

Mr. Stanley

said, this regulation was in force before, and merely authorized the Commissioners to come upon the Grand Juries.

Leave given to bring in the Bill.