HC Deb 15 February 1833 vol 15 cc768-70
Mr. Sergeant Spankie

presented a Petition from Henry Hetherington, complaining of the prosecution which had been instituted against him, and the confinement to which he had been subjected, for the publication of unstamped publications, and praying that if his imprisonment was to be continued, the law should be enforced against the Penny Magazine and similar unstamped publications.

Mr. Hume

thought it was much to be regretted, that in this, the second year of a liberal Administration, they should still have one of the Six Acts in existence, and a number of prosecutions instituted under it. He well recollected, when those Six Acts were proposed, how strongly the noble Lord opposite (Lord Althorp), and many of those around him, opposed them day after day, while they were supported by the right hon. Baronet below him (Sir Robert Peel) as necessary for the safety and security of the country. He remembered also that at that time the present Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench said, that if such laws should be passed, the constitutional liberties of England would no longer exist, and the late Sir James Macdonald expressed an equally strong opinion against them. Yet, under one of these laws, so characterized, 250 victims had been made to suffer since the present Administration came into office. There had been 170 victims when he last moved for a return on the subject, for the continuation of which return he would move on Monday next, and the prisons were at present full with persons confined for similar offences. He must say, in justice to the right hon. Baronet below him, that though that right hon. Gentleman and his party had obtained this law, they had never enforced it,—that though they had called for it as expedient, at a time when the country was in a very critical situation, they had never put it into execution. The fact was, that since the present Government had come into office, more victims had been thrown into prison on account of those cheap publications than ever had been before since England was England. Could there be grosser persecution than this—that for an offence of this description, an individual should be dragged from his family, thrown into prison, there confined in the dead of winter, from 5 o'clock in the evening till 7 o'clock in the morning, in a cell seven feet square, without windows, and where, until lately, he had not even the accommodation of a chair or stool? Before he sat down, he begged to ask the noble Lord, whether or not it was his intention to propose the repeal of this Statute. If the noble Lord's reply should be in the negative, then he should feel it his duty again to make an humble effort to remove such a disgrace from the statute-book.

Lord Althorp

observed, that the hon. Member was quite misinformed with respect to the number of convictions on Government prosecutions for offences against the Stamp Act in respect to periodical publications. The whole number of these prosecutions, instead of 250, was only sixteen, of which Hetherington certainly had given occasion to three cases. There had been many more cases certainly; but these were not instituted by the Government. They were brought forward by common informers, with whom the Government had no connexion; and whose only object was, the recovery of the penalties to which they were entitled by the Act. With respect to the repeal of the taxes on periodicals, the noble Lord said, he should decline making any statement whatever.

Mr. O'Connell

observed, that it was extremely desirable that Government should state as soon as possible what its intentions might be with respect to that portion of the Six Acts which still remained in force, and whether they intended to bring in a Bill for the purpose of removing these enactments from the Statute Book? He hoped they would speedily return to the course appointed by the Common Law, as to the mode and the period of trial. He hoped that these Acts would soon be obliterated from our laws. He was surprised at what had fallen from the noble Lord in his attempt to show that the Government had not been over severe in enforcing the penalties of the Act. If the finances of the country required the imposition of these penalties, surely they ought not to be left to be enforced by common informers. If, out of 250 cases, only sixteen had been brought forward at the instance of the Government, it showed either a great remissness on its part, or a strong feeling of the injustice of the law which they had to enforce. There was another point of view in which the petition of Mr. Hetherington deserved consideration; and that was with relation to the power which it appeared that the persons who had the regulation of the gaols had of inflicting torture; for he considered the confinement of a person for the time mentioned in the petition in a damp cell was neither more nor less than a species of torture. All that was justifiable was to take proper means to prevent the prisoner's escape; but by the mode of confinement sometimes adopted, simple imprisonment was converted into a most serious and afflicting penalty. Means ought to be taken to prevent the punishment of persons convicted of misdemeanour from being thus rendered so much more onerous than was contemplated by the law.

The Attorney General

observed, that the convictions had nothing political in them. A representation had been made on the subject in the proper quarter, and he had no doubt that proper steps would be taken respecting it.

Mr. Lennard

believed, that his hon. friend, the member for Taunton, intended to introduce a measure for the purpose of abolishing so much of those odious acts as related to the question of libel; and he was sure if he did so, he would receive the support of the great majority of that House.

Mr. Ruthven

condemned the introduction of any measures by which the liberties of the subject were restricted. He found fault, therefore, with the system of prison regulation adopted by magistrates both here and in Ireland, and instanced the case of Mr. Hodnet, a respectable gentleman of Cork, who had been incarcerated, and made to suffer every privation, in consequence of having taken some part in a tithe meeting.

Mr. O'Dwyer

concurred in opinion with the hon. member for Dublin. He wished, however, to know whether Mr. Hetherington was to be kept in prison till he paid the fines, for if that were the case his confinement would be perpetual.

Petition to lie on the Table.