HC Deb 15 August 1832 vol 14 cc1393-9
Lord Althorp

moved, in the first place, that their Lordships' Amendments to the Forgery Bill be agreed to. the Amendments, he observed, which their Lordships had made, related to the crimes of forging wills, and of forging powers of attorney for the transfer of stock. He confessed, that when the measure was before that House, he was an advocate for the total abolition of the punishment of death ill all cases of forgery. On reflection, however, he thought perhaps, that it might be better not to abolish all the capital cases of forgery at once, and he regarded the extent to which the Lords allowed the measure to go as a very great point gained, for amongst the variety of cases, only two were excepted. It had been asked of him by an hon. Member, who had just taken his seat, whether any representation had been made to him on the subject of the present Bill by the Bank of England? In reply to that he had only to say, that he had had a conversation with the Governor of the Bank, but he had not received any formal communication whatever. Thus much, however, he thought himself fully warranted in stating, namely, that the wish of the Bank of England certainly was, to retain the punishment of death in all cases where powers of attorney were forged for the transfer of stock. The noble Lord concluded by moving that the Amendments be agreed to.

Sir Edward Sugden

did not rise for the purpose of objecting to or opposing the Amendments made by the other House of Parliament, because he, for one, though he should be glad if the punishment of death could with propriety be done away with in cases of forgery, would at once acknowledge that he concurred in the Amendments which had been made in the other House of Parliament; and he could have wished that the noble Lord (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) had not given way to his humanity. There was one point to which he could not help adverting, and that was the forgery of wills. In these instances professional men possessed the most unlimited confidence of the parties making them. The opportunities which they possessed of committing frauds were far beyond that which could by possibility be possessed by any other class of persons; and in no other country besides England was such unbounded confidence placed in any body of men, as was placed in England, in men of the profession of the law. He therefore would say, let them see how this Bill, with the Amendments made by the House of Lords, would work; though, on the other hand, it might be necessary to extend the capital punishment in cases of gross breaches of private confidence.

Mr. Warburton

was truly sorry that the Lords had thought proper to make the Amendments, which had been sent down to the House of Commons, but he hoped, nevertheless, that the Bill would be permitted to pass. The noble Lord (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), had said, that he had received a remonstrance from the Directors of the Bank of England, on the subject of the abolition of death in all cases of forgery. He hoped that no objection would be made to that remonstrance being laid on the Table.

Lord Althorp

That remonstrance was only verbally made.

Mr. Warburton

said, that he hoped that the noble Lord would not only state what were the terms of the remonstrance, but also what were the reasons upon which that remonstrance had been founded.

Lord Althorp

The statement upon which the objections of the Governors of the Bank of England were founded, was, that a great number of clerks were employed in the Bank of England, who, from the very nature of their employment, must be fully acquainted with the specific amount of stock, standing in each person's name. Now, all persons claiming dividends on stock, or principal so invested, were compelled to state to the uttermost farthing what amount they claimed for, and also to give the exact particulars, as to the profession, residence, &c., of each person, in whoso name the stock stood; hence it must be obvious that those persons who were clerks in the Bank of England had facilities put in their way for forgery which no other men possessed; and that, therefore, it was absolutely necessary to render the punishment in cases of forgery of powers of attorney the most severe which the law could inflict. The hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir Edward Sugden) was quite mistaken in supposing that the reason why he had been anxious to abolish the punishment of death, arose from a morbid and over tender passion of humanity. The view which he had taken of the subject was simply this, that more good would be produced by the infliction of a secondary punishment, where the punishment was certain to be carried into effect, than by enacting a capital punishment for an offence when, under such a penalty, few men could be found to prosecute, and Juries were reluctant to convict. He felt more for the persons who suffered from the practices of those who committed forgeries, than he did for those who committed the crime. With respect to those objections, which were always, he thought, admissible in all other cases, he really thought that, in the case of the Bank of England, an exception to a general rule might be pleaded with great fairness. In the case of an individual the case was very different, and he must confess that, after every possible consideration of the question, he had great doubts as to the correctness of the opinions which he had at first entertained. He certainly felt it to be most inexpedient to reject this Bill; but he had more doubts as to the necessity of inflicting death in the case of forgery of wills, than he had of its infliction in cases of forgery of powers of attorney.

Mr. Hume

thought that the statement of the noble Lord showed a very good reason why the Bank of England should be the only exception to a general rule. But the reason why he admitted the necessity of abolishing the punishment of death, was his conviction that the severity of the law as it now stood, always, or at least generally, had the effect of permitting the culprit to go free. On this ground, then, he considered it was much to be lamented, that these Amendments had been made by the House of Lords. He had no hesitation in saying that it would be much better to reject the Bill altogether, than assent to them without some understanding as to their operation. He had stated to the noble Lord, that, up to the present period, particularly within the last two years and a half, the public feeling was and had been so strong on this point, that he much doubted whether or not the Amendments would be beneficial in their operation. He, therefore, felt it would be most advisable to allow the law to remain in its present state, and to reject this Bill, inasmuch as it might tend to make the infliction of the severest penalty of the law imperative upon persons now under sentence of death for certain offences, but whose sentence, as the law now stood, might be commuted. The noble Lord must be aware that there were many persons now under sentence of death, audit would indeed be hard to apply to their case that which might in many respects be considered an ex post facto law. But as he could not believe that the present Act would be interpreted to the prejudice of such unfortunate persons, he, in common with the noble Lord, felt disposed rather to agree in the Amendments sent up from the Lords than reject the Bill, because some improvement in the criminal law had certainly been obtained, though the two exceptions were made in respect to the punishment of death, in the cases of forgeries of wills and powers of attorney. He would however, again repeat his hope, that the present Bill would not affect persons now under sentence of death. He was satisfied that if the Legislature wished the laws to be properly enforced, it was their duty to see that the infliction of the sentence should be rendered certain; and it was upon that ground he argued, that when it lessened the punishment, but made its infliction sure, it best protected property. It must be evident that, under the existing system, the penalty as by law established, was so frightfully severe that few persons were to be found to enforce the punishment prescribed: and this feeling of repugnance to the law pervaded the judgments of those who ought not to entertain compassion in such cases. He had thought it right to state his views in connexion with this subject, and he hoped that, early next Session, some measures would be taken to revise the criminal law still further. By rendering punishment more certain, more good would be done to prevent crime, than the enactment of a multitude of new laws. Before he had come into the House, he had felt determined to take the sense of the House upon the propriety of rejecting the Amendments, but upon hearing the explanation of the noble Lord (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), he had been induced to waive in some degree his objections, because the Bill, with the alterations made in it by the Lords, was calculated to achieve a very great improvement in the existing law.

Mr. Wilks

said, he hoped that in expressing his concurrence with what had fallen from his hon. friend, the member for Middlesex, it would not be supposed that either he or his hon. friend acquiesced in the law as amended by the alterations made by the Lords. He considered that those alterations were only calculated to be temporary, and, under that feeling alone, he was induced to agree to the Bill as amended.

Mr. Hunt

said, he was very sorry that his Majesty's Attorney General was not present, and ready to defend his Bill. He had given him great credit upon his introducing the measure, for his laudable exertions in the cause of humanity; and he much regretted that that hon. and learned Gentleman, and other Members of the House of Commons were so ready to register the edicts of the House of Lords. It appeared to him, that the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had altered his opinion very readily; not, perhaps, his own personal, but his political opinion; and it was quite clear, that if the House did not assent to these Amendments, the Bill must be lost. It was quite clear that the House had only to send a popular measure up to the House of Lords, and it followed as a matter of course, that they returned such measures with amendments, which served to make them most unpopular. The hon. member for Middlesex bad said, that he had been of opinion that it would be much better that the Bill should be thrown out, and in that first opinion of the hon. Member, he sincerely concurred; but he would not put the House to the trouble of dividing upon the question, inasmuch as he well knew that he should be unsuccessful in the attempt to reject the Bill; but he wished it to be clearly understood that he protested against the Amendments which had been made in the House of Lords. He thought it most preposterous that they should call themselves Representatives of the people, while they assented to the alterations which had been made, upon the plea that if they did not do so the Bill must be thrown out, because it had only reached its last stage at an advanced period of the Session. He begged to call the attention of the House to another Bill which had been lately passed. By the law as it stood previously, it was enacted that persons convicted of certain offences should be transported for various periods; but by the Amendments which had been made in the House of Lords, the sentence was made transportation for life, and it had been made imperative on the Judges to pass sentence accordingly, no discretion being left in the hands of the Judge.

The Attorney General

said, he thought that the hon. Member for Preston might feel satisfied that he had done some good by not dividing the House upon this occasion; for whatever opinion might be entertained as to the amendments which had been made, it was quite clear that the Lords had taken away the punishment of death for forgery, except in two cases—those of forgery of a will, and of a power of attorney. He rejoiced at so much having been achieved, though he should have been better satisfied had the Lords given their sanction to the abolition of the punishment of death in all cases; and he would confess that he could not exactly distinguish the principle upon which the amendments had been made, because the arguments which had been urged on both points, would apply with equal, if not greater force to bills of exchange. Undoubtedly as to the forgery of wills, professional men had a great deal of confidence reposed in them, and that was a reason for punishing that species of forgery very severely. With regard to another Bill alluded to by the hon. member for Preston, he must say that he rejoiced it had become the law of the land, because he was sure it had effected a most important improvement in our criminal law.

Mr. Hunt

had no objection to hang all lawyers who might be guilty of a breach of trust.

Amendments agreed to.

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