HC Deb 04 April 1838 vol 42 cc426-9
Mr. F. Maule

moved the second reading of the Prisons (Scotland) Bill.

Captain Gordon

had no objection to a uniform system of prison discipline in Scotland under the authority of a Central Board of Commissioners, but then the powers of those Commissioners should be limited. What he objected to in this Bill was, that an irresponsible board should have the power of assessing the people of Scotland to the amount of 30,000l. a-year. It was not his intention to oppose the second reading, but he hoped it would not be passed through Committee without giving hon. Members and the country time to judge of its merits.

Mr. Lockhart

had several clauses to propose in Committee, but would not object to the Bill being read a second time.

Mr. Pringle

objected to the Central Committee, but should not offer any opposition to the Bill in its present stage.

Mr. Maule

said the Bill was introduced early last Session. Its principles had been affirmed by the House, and it was referred to a Select Committee. It was considered and much amended in its details by that Committee. Much opposition had been given to it by the country gentlemen of Scotland; but that opposition was now much mitigated. To establish one uniform system through the country a central board was absolutely necessary. And as for the mode of taxation objected to, it was provided by the twenty-second clause, that before taxation could be levied, the board would be obliged to make out an estimate of the funds required, which estimate was to be sent to the Secretary of State, who would lay it before Parliament, so that the board would not be enabled to proceed with any taxation until it had been before the public. Although 30,000l. seemed a large sum in the abstract, he considered it very small when the object to gain was considered. The report of Mr. Hill on the state of the Scotch prisons sufficiently proved the necessity of some measure. Under these circumstances, he hoped the Bill would be read a second time, and to give ample time for its consideration he would propose its committal for the second Wednesday in May. By that time he hoped the opposition to its details would be mitigated.

Sir R. Peel

admitted, that some legislation was necessary on this subject, as, in a country like Scotland, where the prisons were necessarily small, the discipline was generally lax, It was only in large societies that public opinion exercised any influence. In some of the prisons in Scotland only two, three, or four inmates were generally to be found, and the office of gaoler almost fell into desuetude. It might not be objectionable to have a Central Committee or Board in the metropolis, which might afford the benefit of its experience to the more remote districts, and wean them from their too great leaning towards existing systems. He did not, however, think it desirable to supersede altogether the influence of country gentlemen, and it was with some concern he had heard that the gentlemen of Scotland had so much withdrawn themselves from all public business, He admitted, that a board of central control would possess great advantages, but if it altogether superseded the interference of the country gentlemen he feared the advantages would be purchased at too high a price. However well the system might work at first they would ultimately have reason to regret that the gentlemen of the Country were precluded from interference. There was one part of the Bill which required serious consideration, because of the principle which was involved in it, and which might involve a dangerous precedent. He meant that part which related to assessments of entire districts. This arbitrary imposition of a tax was contrary to all constitutional principle. It might be said, that the amount was limited; but still the argument as to the principle was left untouched. If the principle were once admitted, it might be extended to the turnpike-roads, bridges, and all other local purposes, which were now under the control of bodies in general of a representative character. Then, if the argument against the principle could be got over, there were some objections as to detail. Some counties might already be well provided with prisons, and others might be deficient. If the assessment were to spread equally over districts those counties which had already made sufficient provision would naturally complain at being mulcted to make up for the deficiencies of those who had been negligent. Either it should be this, or the Commissioners must have a discretion to pronounce upon the counties, whether they were well or ill provided with prisons, and average accordingly the proportions to be paid. Where a distinction was thus made it would be difficult to come to a point which would give satisfaction to both parties. One party would think, that their prisons were not sufficiently valued, whilst the others would be of opinion that they had been rated too highly. He threw out these suggestions for the consideration of the House, and would conclude by again recommending that in any measure for the regulation of prisoners they would endeavour to win over the assistance of the local authorities, by inviting them to take a share in the control.

Mr. R. Steuart

said, the remarks of the right hon. Baronet were of a very useful kind, and he was sure that his hon. Friend would give them his immediate consideration. The difficulties involved in the question of assessment had been felt and duly considered, and the result was, that the difficulties attending every other plan that had been brought forward were found to be greater than those attending the plan proposed in the Bill. He would, however, willingly agree to any other practicable mode of assessment, and he should feel great pleasure if, by giving the power to the head courts or otherwise, the rate-payers should be enabled to tax themselves.

The Attorney-General

fully agreed with the right hon. Baronet that local assessments should be laid by those who contributed to them; but at present those assessments were levied by officers appointed by the Crown, while the persons in whom it was proposed to vest the power would be appointed by Parliament. As representative of a very large constituency, he begged to thank his hon. Friend for the pains he had taken in preparing this Bill, and on the happiness it was likely to confer.

Bill read a second time.