HC Deb 13 April 1837 vol 37 cc1201-7
Mr. Fox Maule

said, the subject which I feel it to be my duty to bring under the notice of the House, is one of so much importance, that I trust I may be permitted to trespass for a short time on its attention, while I detail the amendments which I propose to make in the management of the prisons and system of prison discipline in Scotland. All who have turned their attention to this interesting subject, concur in opinion that without uniformity of system no great improvement can be obtained, and, however in some cases centralization of management may be undesirable, in respect to prisons there seems to be but one opinion as to the propriety of its adoption. Fully subscribing to this doctrine, which I find strongly recommended in Mr. Hill's two Reports on the prisons of Scotland, I have endeavoured to frame a measure which shall carry it into effect, and rescue that country from the stain which the present system casts upon it. Did my time permit, I might enter into a detail of the present evils, which, perhaps, would be the most formal course previous to suggesting the remedies; but these are so well known to every one connected with that country that I feel, as far as they are concerned, it would be an unnecessary consumption of time, and will content myself by referring the House and the public to Mr. Hill's excellent reports in justification, if it be required, of the measure which I shall lay on the table. But I cannot avoid mentioning one striking fact, that, notwithstanding the immense changes that have taken place in Scotland—the increase of population—the establishment of large commercial communities—the enlargement, if I may say of the field for crime, and the increased strictness of the administration of the law —the statute which regulates the confinement of prisoners bears the antiquated date of 1597. By this Act, in return, no doubt, for valuable privileges at that time enjoyed by them, the royal burghs were called upon to take charge of all persons sentenced to imprisonment, and were held responsible for their safe custody and maintenance when convicted, out of the common goods or property, of the borough, of which, at the time, no doubt, there was a sufficiency for the purpose; for, I fear, the majesty of the law was so ill upheld in those days, that few were made subject to its necessary vengeance. But many of our royal burghs have fallen from their former estate, and their property is gone: but their liability remains; and what is the consequence? Their gaols are in the worst possible condition—no discipline can exist, for there are no means to carry it out—male and female, convicted and untried, the hardened in crime and the juvenile offender, debtor and felon, may be seen herded together under the charge of a gaoler, with a salary of some 4l. or 5l. a-year, who ekes out the remainder of his scanty income by the profits he derives from supplying beer, spirituous liquors, and other articles to the unfortunate individuals under his charge. This state of things has not been unnoticed by Parliament, though no effectual remedy has yet been provided. In 1818, and 1819, a Committee of the House was employed in carefully investigating the subject; but the only result of their labour was the 59th of George 3rd, c. 61. This Act is very defective in its provisions, and it only applies to rebuilding gaols on their old sites, and leaves it a matter of choice to the counties to give or withhold aid as they see fit. In 1826 the attention of Parliament was again attracted to the subject, and the result of their inquiries was, that in the opinion of the Committee the state of the prisons in Scotland was very defective in point of security, accom- modation and management, while the funds from which such prisons ought to be improved were in most instances inadequate for the purpose. The Committee go on to state, that it is no longer a matter of choice, but of necessity, that a speedy and effective remedy should be supplied to an evil of such, magnitude. Notwithstanding these suggestions, no farther steps were taken towards an improved system till 1829, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite brought forward a Bill, which, had it been entertained, would have gone far to remedy the existing evils, and contained some of the provisions which I have adopted in the present Bill. Counties have also, in some instances, stepped in voluntarily to share with the burghs the burthen of maintaining prisoners, and providing secure accommodation. Various kind and charitable individuals have also formed themselves into societies, which have done some good in introducing religious instruction, and attracting public attention to the subject; but with the best intentions, their objects have been in a great measure rendered ineffectual by want of a proper system of discipline and order. But there is another principle to be considered. Is it right that the present liabilities of burghs should remain? I cannot for a moment subscribe to such a proposition; and I hold that all classes of the community are bound, according to their means, to be subject to this natural duty. Impressed with these opinions, I will state shortly the heads of the Bill which I shall ask leave to introduce to the House, and which they will find to be framed much upon the principles and suggestions contained in Mr. Hill's reports. It is proposed to place the whole prisons of Scotland and regulation of prison discipline under one board of directors, to be named in the Act, with the addition of the inspector of prisons for the north, and two directors to be named by the Secretary of State; the office Of director to be honorary; the board to make regulations subject to approval or alteration by the Secretary of State, and to lay their proceedings annually before Parliament. I propose the board shall lay before Parliament every year art estimate of the expenses for the ensuing year; this estimate to be on the table of the House for one month, and, if not questioned in that time, to be carried into effect by the board levying an assessment on counties and burghs according to their population. The proportions for each being allocated according to a schedule in the Bill, the assessment is proposed to be raised oh counties along with the rogue money, and in burghs by the magistrates along with any convenient burgh rate that may exist. It is proposed to limit the amount of the assessment to what is right and reasonable; and I propose that it shall not exceed 30,000l. in any one year over all Scotland. By the calculations I have made, I find that this sum, being the highest possible rate, would impose an assessment upon the city of Edinburgh of only about one penny in the pound of rental, and even on the country generally would fall so lightly as scarcely to be felt as a burthen. I propose that there shall be three great penitentiaries in different parts of the kingdom, and it fortunately happens that there are buildings belonging to Government exceedingly well adapted for this purpose, which I am prepared to state Government will grant the use of, and which will enable us, with comparatively little expense, to carry the plan into effect; There are also several smaller prisons at present existing, which, some of them in their present state and some of them with slight alteration, will still remain useful. Thus I have endeavoured to show the House the principle I propose to adopt; the manner of carrying it into effect; the means of defraying the expenses of it; and the equity with which they will fall on all classes of the community, rural as well as urban. They will perhaps understand the details better when the Bill and its schedules are in their hands; but I could not in justice to the subject allow it to go to the public without this explanation of its Various points. I fed quite assured that though there may be some difference of opinion as to these details, to which I am by no means bound if improvement can be shown, the gentlemen of Scotland will support me in carrying the principle into effect. Men of all parties and opinions will approach the subject with but one feeling, and lend their aid and influence to promote the Cause of justice and humanity, and render our country as distinguished for the order and regularity of our prisons as she has long been for the intelligence and morality of her people. I beg to move for leave to bring in a Bill to improve prisons and prison discipline in Scotland.

Major Cumming Bruce

was sure the House would agree with him, that no apology was necessary for his hon. Friend for occupying their time with the able statement with which he had introduced the present important measure; a measure which he trusted would soon remove the disgrace which at present attached to Scotland from the state of her prisons. He liked not only the general principles of the measure, but the details also, and he anticipated the happiest results from its operation. Though not a friend to the principle of centralization in all matters, he was convinced, and he was sure that others would agree with him, that this was a case in which centralization was necessary, seeing that this was a matter not of petty local interests, but of national concern, and that it was only by putting the prisons of Scotland under one general direction, that any efficient and permanent reform could be obtained. If he had had any doubt of the necessity of this and the other leading principles of the Bill, those doubts have been removed by the perusal of the reports of the inspector of prisons for Scotland. In all the principles and views brought forward by Mr. Hill in those reports he heartily concurred, and he thought that the more the present measure was made in accordance with those views and principles, the more good it would contain. The advantage was to be general, and therefore it was quite reasonable that there should be a general assessment, and that all should contribute according to their ability, whether they happened to be inhabitants of burghs or not. The burghs had already borne their peculiar burdens too long, and he was glad to find that this measure would afford them relief.

Sir William Rae

said, that the country ought to feel obliged to the hon. Gentleman for having brought this measure forward. He trusted that this was a Government measure, as it was the only mode in which it could be effectually carried through. He had paid much attention to this subject, and had endeavoured to apply a remedy to the acknowledged evils at present existing. His chief difficulty had been in providing the large district prisons and procuring the necessary funds, but the ban, Member would not have the same difficulties to contend with, if he obtained the assistance of Government in providing the penitentiaries required; if he needed to raise any large sum by a new form of assessment, he would perhaps be beaten. The rates in counties in Scotland were at present levied according to a valuation made nearly 200 years ago, which, of course, does not show the value of property. The right hon. Member concluded by saying that, he would be very happy to afford any assistance in his power in aid of such an important measure.

Lord J. Russell

said, that the Bill was a Government measure, and that Government would do all in its power to carry it through Parliament.

The Lord Advocate

said, that the present system of prison discipline was a disgrace to Scotland, and could not be allowed to continue. It was also a consideration not unworthy of the attention of the House, that the proposed measure was likely to prove a measure of economy. That it must be so, was evident from this —that if crime be diminished, expense must be diminished in the same, or nearly in the same proportion.

Captain Gordon

considered that the plan was exceedingly good, and one which it was most desirable should be carried into immediate effect. He wished to know whether it was the intention of his hon. Friend, in cases where nothing could be established against particular prisons, that the parties maintaining those gaols should be put to additional expense.

Mr. Fox Maule

replied, that if the proposed measure became an Act of Parliament, the prisons of Scotland would be placed under one board possessing power to levy a general assessment over the whole Country, by which means counties and boroughs would be relieved from any future expense.

Mr. Forbes

did not much approve of any further increase of centralization, and certainly, before he gave his assent to the measure then before the House, he must see what was said to its details in the county which he had the honour to represent.

Mr. Hawes

said, it would be highly advantageous, if, in establishing regulations of the kind proposed, arrangements should be made for rendering the gaols of Scotland self-supporting establishments.

Sir William Mae

inquired whether or not it Was intended that the same responsibility as formerly should attach to magistrates in cases where debtors effected their escape.

Mr. Maule

said, it was expected that in future a more respectable class of men would fill the office of gaoler than had done so formerly; they would, therefore, be enabled to find sufficient security, and the magistrates would then be relieved from further responsibility.

Motion agreed to. Bill brought in and read a first time.