HC Deb 20 June 1832 vol 13 cc938-44

Lord Nugent moved the re-committal of this Bill.

Sir Robert Inglis

had already told the noble Lord that it was impossible he could support the Bill; that he considered it a specimen of that pruriency of legislation which had of late years afflicted this country; that he entertained objections to the Bill in point of principle, and that his objections were not less considerable to its details. He had told his noble friend, that the Bill must either be compulsory or not. If the registration he proposed were compulsory, by what pains or penalties did his hon. friend propose to enforce its provisions? If it were not to be compulsory, then what possible advantage, if advantage it could be called, would result from this legislative enactment, by which those who might possibly have to consult 10,000 registers now, would, by the provisions of this Bill, have to consult 20,000? If this Bill were compulsory, he could understand how some advantages might arise from its adoption, though not by any means sufficient to compensate for the disadvantages that would follow from it; but, if it were not compulsory, then nothing but vexation would result from it to those persons who acted upon its provisions; a great inconvenience and risk to those who relied upon the accuracy of the registries, which might be in some cases made under it, while others, after a laborious research, would have nothing but the burthen of their in- quiry for their trouble. If it were not compulsory, it was obvious that it would not be carried fully into effect. If it were left altogether to the discretion of the parent, or person representing the parent, to enter the birth of the child, what evidence would there be that the registry of any certain parish, in any given year, contained all the births which occurred in that parish? And if it did not contain all the births, then the Bill was of no use. As a principle of legislation, the supposed case of grievance ought to be proved before proceeding to legislate for a remedy. Three months ago he had asked his noble friend to state his grievance, and, in the present pressure of public business, the House had a right to expect that it should not be called upon to legislate until the necessity and expediency of legislating at all upon the subject had been fully shown. These were his objections to the principle of the Bill, but almost all the details of it were not less objectionable. His noble friend proposed to invest an order of persons called Parish Clerks with the execution of a great part of this Bill. Every Gentleman then present could decide upon the character of Parish Clerks. He should like to ask any hon. Gentleman what proportion of Parish Clerks could write? According to the information given to him, there was a county not 100 miles from this place, and in the neighbourhood of the noble Lord himself, where two-thirds of the Parish Clerks did not know how to write. But it was a necessary preliminary that the persons whom his noble friend would employ should be able to write as well as read. Again, how did his noble friend propose to remunerate these Parish Clerks? By certain fees for extracts which they might be called upon to make from the registers. He apprehended that this would not apply to more than one in fifty of all the entries which they would be required to make. And how was this registry to be entered? It was to be entered in certain books; and had the noble Lord considered what the mere expense of those books would be, besides the expense of the attendance on the Justice of the Peace every quarter to certify those books? The least charge, for the smallest parish in the kingdom, would be 2l. a year; an additional burthen of 20,000l. or 30,000l. would thus be imposed upon the parishes throughout England, for the performance of a work which was not at all necessary, and which would be perfectly inoperative unless made compulsory; so that, looking at the question in a fiscal point of view, the Bill was very objectionable. The House had not been told what degree of labour was to be imposed on the Justices of the Peace by this Bill. He apprehended that one Justice would have to superintend the Clerks of every ten or twelve parishes—that was to say, rural parishes; of course the argument applied with tenfold force to such parishes as Lambeth, Marylebone, and others of that description. He would ask his noble friend, who was himself a country gentleman, what consolation or recreation he would deem it to be, to have, every morning, the Parish Clerks coming with their books, requiring him to look over the entries of all the Johnsons, and Thomsons, and Williamsons, of the parish? But, if this objection held good with respect to the rural parishes, how much more strongly did it apply to the town population—for the Bill made, it was true, no distinction—and it was the utmost that could be said in favour of it, that it would benefit the different classes of Dissenters: with respect to the members of the Established Church, the births of all their children were necessarily registered in the parish registries, by the entries of their baptisms. If the great object of the Bill were, that it would facilitate the proofs of title to property by Dissenters, he would call the attention of his noble friend to this point: the parish priest registered the birth, because he registered the baptism, of the child; but what, under this Bill, was to hinder any person coming to the Parish Clerk, without any child in his arms, and obtaining the registry of a fictitious person? Even in small parishes this would not be very easily detected, but in large parishes it could not be detected at all. For instance, St. Margaret's, or St. Giles's; let any Member look at the number of births taking place there every day, and then say, whether it was not necessary that there should be some additional evidence beyond what this Bill provided, that a child had been born? The great security for the accuracy of the present registry was, that no entry was therein made until the clergyman had had the child in his arms. It was perfectly clear, without imputing a corrupt motive, that a Parish Clerk might enter a child as born, which might, in fact, never have been born, as there would be no other evidence of the circumstance than the testimony of the party requiring the entry to be made. The facilities to commit fraud, with a view to the descent of property, would be, therefore, very great under this Bill. This, indeed, was a strong argument against it, that while it did not secure a bona fide entry of children who were actually born, because there was no compulsion on parties to make such entries, it did facilitate the entries as of children having been born where no such children were born, because the Parish Clerk was empowered and, indeed required, to make the entry upon the assertion of any person. It behoved the House, therefore, to pause before they sanctioned so ready a means of committing fraud. Then there was the risk incurred by the kind of custody to which these registries were proposed to be intrusted. Every quarter of a year the Parish Clerk was to carry this book to a Justice of the Peace. Under the present system, the register must remain in the custody of the Minister of the parish, and was deposited by him in the iron chest; but, by this Bill, a document which was to have the force of law, and upon which the security of all the property in the country might depend, was to be in the custody of a man who, in many instances, could not himself write, and who, in some of the parishes in the kingdom, had a salary of the lowest nature, not exceeding 5l. or 10l. a year, and who would be required to give up a portion of his time without remuneration, and would, necessarily, be in many cases too accessible to the commission of fraud. Under these circumstances his noble friend, had not laid down, either when he introduced the measure, or in its intermediate stages, any ground for altering the present law. He had not, by the Bill, avoided any of the evils that might exist, under the present system, while he (Sir Robert Inglis) certainly perceived many objections to the Bill, both in principle and detail, which were not to be remedied in Committee. Under these circumstances, he felt bound to move as an Amendment, that the Bill be re-committed this clay six months.

Mr. John Campbell

seconded the Amendment, because he believed that the Bill would not answer its intended object, and he thought there ought to be one bill for the registration of births, deaths, and marriages. A large portion of the people of this country had no registry whatever. This Bill, however, did not go far enough to remedy the evils, and he would recommend the noble Lord to make it more extensive, and then it would be a real blessing to the country.

Mr. Ruthven

was quite aware that some measure on the subject was requisite, and, though it was much wanted in Ireland, this Bill would not answer the purpose, inasmuch as it imposed a duty on Parish Clerks, which the Clerks of Ireland would be inadequate to perform, and which had hitherto been performed by the clergymen He hoped the noble Lord would keep the subject in mind, but would at present postpone the Bill.

Mr. Vernon Smith

supported the Bill, but would be glad to see some alterations in it. The Bill was principally intended to benefit the Dissenters, and that it would effect to a considerable degree. He should be sorry to see the Bill rejected altogether because it did not effect all the good possible.

The Solicitor General

concurred with the hon. member for Stafford, as to the propriety of a general measure for the registration of deaths, births, and marriages, but recommended the withdrawal of the present measure, as it had not been sufficiently considered. If the Bill were postponed, as he was sensible of the great importance of the subject, he would render all the assistance in his power to make it a complete measure.

Mr. Goulburn

also recommended the withdrawal of the Bill for the present Session. The plan had no pretensions to form an accurate record out of the register, and it would, in some cases, impose great hardships on Justices of the Peace.

Mr. Crampton

was aware of the difficulties attending this question, but would vote for going into Committee, being deeply impressed with the advantages of a general registration. The registry was bad in England, but it was still worse in Ireland. Many difficulties, however, stood in the way of extending the Bill to Ireland, and it would require much consideration to get over them.

Lord Nugent

would, in the first place, deny that any labour was thrown on the Magistrates; all the labour would be imposed on their clerks, who would receive Is. for every such entry; it, therefore, would not be a gratuitous labour. With respect to the objection of the hon. and learned Gentleman, that errors might be made in copying those registers, and that there might, in certain cases, be conflicting evidence, and that even fraudulent entries would be made; if common care were exercised there would be but few errors in copying, and the latter evil would be avoided, as the transcripts were lodged in different places, and under the care of different persons, so that the insertion of a false entry would easily be detected. His hon. friend said, that no sufficient ground had been urged to call for this change, but the numerous cases which had been brought forward of the present registry of births being very imperfect, was, in his opinion, sufficient ground for the change. The present registration only showed that the child was alive at the date of the entry, but it had no reference to the age. He knew of cases in which great inconvenience had arisen, in consequence of this; he would mention one. In a parish a short distance from his residence, a couple went to church to be married, and the clergyman asked the parties whether they had been baptized? The man answered in the negative, and the clergyman refused to perform the marriage ceremony until he had been christened. The man at last submitted, and was baptized and married on the same day. Now it happened that the bridegroom had a younger brother, who had been baptized several years before. After a lapse of time, litigation arose between the descendants of these brothers, as to some property, founded on the dates in the registration; but, after some difficulty, the matter was explained. Now, if the time of registration were taken as a proof of the date of birth, the right of primogeniture might be destroyed. The present mode of registration was hard on the Dissenters, and peculiarly so on the Baptists. Again, the present mode was open to several gross abuses. The House was aware that in the public schools there were numerous exhibitions to Oxford and Cambridge. It was necessary that the young men who were sent on these exhibitions should go before they attained a certain age. Now, parents were often guilty of this abuse, that when they intended to send their children to a public school, they did not get them baptized until they were three or four years old; so that they were younger, according to the register, than they really were; and if they did not pass their examination successfully, they were enabled to have another trial. He was sure his hon. friend would agree with him, that a more abominable desecration of a holy sacrament could not be conceived. He would not then proceed to meet the various objections that had been urged, as that could be done better when the House went into Committee. With reference, however, to a suggestion made by his hon. and learned friend, that he should extend this Bill to marriages and deaths, he would only observe, that he felt the difficulties attending even this partial measure to be so strong, that if he were to combine the other two, he was afraid he should find them to be insuperable. He had no objection to increase the fees to be given to the Magistrates' clerks for the examination of the registers, or for making extracts; and the parties who made application for this purpose would not, he was sure, object, as they generally had some personal advantage in view in these applications. He had no wish to divide the House, as, in point of fact, it would lead to an adjournment; he would, therefore, consent to postpone the Committee on this Bill.

Further consideration deferred.