HC Deb 09 August 1839 vol 50 cc139-49

Lord John Russell moved the Order of the Day for the second reading of the Manchester Police Bill.

Mr. C. Buller

understood this to be a bill to abolish popular control in the different new boroughs, owing to a dispute that had been raised relative to the validity of their charters. It was unfortunate, that they had no legal opinion for their guidance—that they had received none of any authority, at least, except of that eminent law officer of the Crown, the President of the Board of Trade, who seemed disposed to oust the learned Attorney-general from his office. Seeing the learned Attorney-general now in his place, however, he wished to ask him this question. In what state were the charters that had been granted to Birmingham and Manchester? Was the House to understand, that the validity of the whole charters granted to those towns, was disputed by the questions which had been raised? Was it disputed, that legal corporations existed in those boroughs? Were the appointments of magistrates questioned? or did the question merely extend to the simple point, of the power of the town-councils to levy rates? He understood at first, that the powers of the town-council were entirely disputed. If the question only extended to the power of levying rates, he thought the Government ought at once to fall back on the original bill, and not interfere needlessly with the franchises of the inhabitants. But if it were contended, that the charters were altogether bad, then he could understand the reason which induced the Government to introduce this bill.

The Attorney-General

was very imperfectly acquainted with respect to what was admitted, or what disputed by the parties who raised the question relative to those charters. But so far as he understood the subject, he had no hesitation in stating, as his own individual opinion, that the charters were in omnibus perfectly valid. He should have thought, that his learned Friend as a lawyer, instead of putting those questions, would have rather studied the Act of Parliament, and satisfied his own mind upon the point. However, as his learned Friend had thought fit to put those questions, it was of course his duty to answer them. Then he should say, that under the 141st section of the Municipal Reform Act, a power was expressly given to the Crown to create new corporations, with all the powers which belonged to and had been exercised by the old corpotions. Under that clause, charters had been granted to Devonport, Manchester, Birmingham, and Bolton. The charter granted to Devonport, had not been questioned in any degree. Those granted to Manchester and Birmingham were disputed on the grounds, that they did not in all respects comply with the Act of Parliament. He could only say, that those charters had been prepared with the greatest care; they had not only been examined by himself, but by others of greater experience, who had devoted the greatest time and attention to the subject, and that they had been framed with the most anxious purpose to meet every doubt that could be raised against them. A legal doubt had, however, been raised with respect to the powers under the charter to levy a borough-rate. He understood the great question was, not whether the charters were entirely void or not, but whether the town-councils could levy a lawful borough-rate. At the same time, he was not prepared to say how far the parties might ultimately carry the question, and as to whether they might not say the charters were utterly void, he would not pledge himself. His own opinion was, that the charters were valid, and that they did convey the powers to levy a lawful rate, according to the Act of Parliament. In the meantime, the overseers refused to pay a single shilling of the rate, either in Birmingham or Manchester. It was therefore utterly impossible for the corporations of those towns to maintain a police force. As regarded the powers of the magistrates, it was plain, that the question could not touch their position, as they held their powers apart from the charter, and were appointed by the Queen.

Sir R. H. Inglis

observed, that the learned Attorney-general had expressed himself with equal confidence on the question of privilege, and yet the Court of Queen's Bench had come to a very different conclusion; and on this point all he could say was, that two learned Gentlemen had given an opinion adverse to that now given by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Bolling

was instructed to deny the allegations that they had no police force at Bolton adequate to meet any exigency which might arise. The commissioners of police had now an efficient force of special constables. They were levying a rate, and no refusal had been made to the payment. He would oppose the bill as tending to prejudice the questions at issue regarding the validity of the charters.

Mr. T. Duncombe

wished to put a question in point of form, which he apprehended might interfere with the progress of this bill. He wished to know why this bill was not treated as a private bill? It was merely a local Act. In the case of Birmingham there was a grant of public money. But this was a local Act to all intents and purposes, and should be treated as such, as had been done in the case of Liverpool and the city of London. He hoped the Speaker would favour the House with his opinion on that point.

The Speaker

said, that if this bill had been applied for by the inhabitants of Manchester, and if they were to have had the appointment of the constables, then it must have been treated as a private bill. But in this case the constables were to be appointed by the Crown. It was to be compulsory on the inhabitants, and therefore it was not a private bill.

Lord J. Russell

had no wish whatever in moving this bill, to prejudice in one way or another, the questions at issue relative to the validity of the charters. With regard to the town of Bolton being sufficiently secured by special constables, he was ready to admit they would come forward and perform their duty on any specific emergency. But to preserve the peace of a town of that size and population, a permanent police force would be required to perform that duty day by day, and night by night, which it would be perfectly intolerable for those constables to undergo.

Mr. Grimsditch

said, the people of Manchester had an efficient police force under the control of the commissioners of police. [Mr. Brotherton: No, No!] The hon. Member for Salford says "no!" He certainly understood from respectable authority, that such was the case. He should not, however, oppose the second reading, but reserve his objections till the bill went into committee.

Mr. G. Wood

said, it was his intention to support the second reading of the bill, in the belief that it would in no way prejudice those legal questions which had been raised in the Courts of law, between the advocates and the opponents of the charter. The state of those questions had been so amply explained by the learned Attorney-general, that it would ill become him to advert more to it. But as to the necessity of Parliament making some provision for the police force in Manchester, he thought no one fully acquainted with the condition of the town could entertain any doubt. Some hon. Members had stated, that there was now a police in the town, with ample pecuniary means for its support. He entirely dissented from the accuracy of that statement. There was the old body of commissioners, in number 240, who before the charter was granted, had provided the police of the town by day and night, the expenses being defrayed by a rate they were empowered by Parliament to levy for that purpose. When the charter had been granted, and a council appointed, they concurred, that they were entitled to levy the rate and provide for the police force, and that the powers of the old commissioners were superseded under the Municipal Reform Act Thus the two parties were directly at issue, each claiming the exclusive right of levying the police rate. But the inhabitants, not knowing which of the two rates would be legal, had resolved with that shrewdness which upon monetary matte especially distinguished them—to pay neither till the question had been determined. When the council issued, their precept to the proper parties to pay over the requisite sum for the maintenance of the force, the legal process was forcibly resisted. The churchwarden against whom there had been directed the distress warrant, had succeeded in ejecting the officers from possession, a violent mob assembled, and the peace of the town was for a considerable time endangered. Unless the House made provision for this anomalous state of things, the police of Manchester would soon be put an end to. The bill seemed to him to be very wisely framed for the desired object, avoiding all irrelevant and contested questions.

Mr. Williams

thought what had fallen from the hon. Member for Kendal would satisfy the House that there really was no necessity for this bill. The town of Manchester bad hitherto been well governed by its own police, under a commission consisting of 240 gentlemen of all parties. And he had not heard that the police were inefficiently managed or inadequate in number. If there was any dispute between the Commissioners and the corporation, the best course to pursue, would be to give the Commissioners the management of the police, until the litigated question should be decided. This bill would in effect place the town of Manchester under Metropolitan Police Law; there were provisions in the bill never known before in the town; there were powers given to the police which had never yet been endured. He never could consent to such an arbitrary stretch of power; he trusted that the noble Lord would still desist from the measure; if not, if any Member divided against the bill, he would vote with him.

Mr. C. Buller

The House must feel grateful to the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair for the opinion which he had given, as they now understood that this bill was not asked for by the great towns to be affected by its provisions, and that it was to be compulsorily imposed, contrary to the wishes of the inhabitants. He was gratified also to have obtained the opinion of the learned Attorney-general, which would do away with a great deal of misrepresentation which existed on the subject, and it was the more important, as that opinion was at variance with the sentiments of the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade. He did not know if these counteracting opinions were to be viewed as a continuance of the feud of yesterday, but he was disposed to pay every weight to the opinion of the Attorney-general, knowing the great value of that opinion on any subject to which that learned Gentleman applied the energies of his clear and accurate mind. In this case, the opinion of the Attorney-general had completely upset the law of the President of the Board of Trade, and told them, that the town-council of Manchester was a very good town-council. He thought the noble Lord ought not, however, under these circumstances, to take advantage of the bungling which that House had committed in framing one of its Acts of Parliament, by introducing this measure, whose object was to establish a police force under the control of the Government, and on that shameful system of centralization, destructive of all the ancient privileges of English liberty, which gave to the local authorities of the country the exclusive management of their own funds. He felt the greatest objection to this measure of centralization, which was imbued with all the evils of the same system now in full operation in France. He had shewn, by his conduct, that he was not disposed to carry his opposition to the measures of the noble Lord to any improper extent. He had supported the noble Lord in his District Counties Constable Bill. That bill rested on a different basis from the present. It gave to the local authorities the power of appointing the local constables, and was free from the hideous feature of centralization which disgraced the present measure, and which proposed to take away those rights from the town-councils appointed by the people, and who were discharging their functions to the entire satisfaction of the inhabitants.

Lord J. Russell

said, the hon. and learned Gentleman who has just addressed the House has taken great pains to misrepresent the principle of this billon grounds which do not apply to it, and on an assumption of facts which never existed. The hon. and learned Gentleman has alleged, that I have taken advantage of the state of these towns to introduce a centralized system of police analogous to that which is now in operation in Prance. I do not see on what grounds I can be charged with seeking any advantage by the introduction of a measure which, in so far as I am concerned, can only be attended with a great deal of trouble; and I beg to tell the hon. and learned Gentle- man, that this bill does not, as he supposes, go to establish any centralized system of police, but simply and exclusively a local police. The grounds on which I have introduced the measure are the peculiar state in which those towns are placed with respect to the public peace, and the means of raising money to establish and maintain a police force necessary for the comfort and safety of the inhabitants. Sir, if there be a deficiency of police and of the means of preserving the peace of those towns, and if that fact is made known to me, I conceive it is my duty to attend to that fact, and to adopt the requisite measures to preserve the inhabitants from any consequences that might ensue from such a state of things. What is the case here? The town-councils claim the right, under their charters, to levy certain rates. The street-commissioners and police-commissioners also claim the right to levy certain rates; and while these disputes exist, is it taking any advantage of these towns to prevent the misfortunes which might ensue by leaving Birmingham, and Manchester, and Bolton to be disturbed any night in the week? When I proposed that the police should be under the control of the town-councils in these towns, I was told that it was giving a preference to one of the contending parties, while the question regarding the charters was still pending. Am I then taking any advantage in appointing a commissioner to establish that police locally, an independent person, entirely unconnected with either party, and who will not give the advantage to one party or the other? I am told by one hon. Member that the control should be given to the town-council in Birmingham; another tells me that in Manchester it should be given to the commissioners of police, the one advice being exactly the reverse of the other. But another hon. Member again says, the police should be placed under the old body of the town. Now the town-council of Birmingham is of one party, and the police-commissioners of Manchester belong to another party. I will not be guided by those conflicting sentiments. I will not be swayed by either. I will take that course which is independent of both, apart from both, and will neutralize them all. I cannot understand how it happens, that the learned Gentleman should have so far misconstrued the principles and the nature of this bill. I have explained them formerly. There must be some reason why the learned Gentleman would not attend to my explanations, otherwise, at least, I cannot imagine how he could have represented this bill as being founded on a principle of centralization similar to that which is established in France.

Mr. Aglionby

had seen no proof that the bill was called for by the state of these towns, or by the wishes of the inhabitants. At the same time, he would readily acquit the noble Lord of any wish to take advantage of the situation of those towns. On the contrary, he understood that all parties in Manchester agreed that they were much indebted to the noble Lord for having brought this measure forward, so that their claims might be fairly discussed. He believed, that the noble Lord introduced this measure because he had come to the conclusion, that it was the best mode for preserving the public peace. Still he could not come to the same view of the subject. He asked, if there were any petitions in favour of this bill? [An hon. Member: There are none against it.] It was said, that there were no petitions against it. That might be, but then it must be remembered, that the bill had only been printed two days ago. He understood there was a deputation in town, however, from Manchester, who had come on purpose to oppose it. ["No, no!"] He could only say, that he was in favour of the charter, and would support its powers by every means he possessed. But he viewed the present as a separate matter altogether. He understood, that the commissioners of police in Manchester had ample powers to maintain a police force—that such a police force is still kept up by them—that they possessed full power to levy rates, and that they had funds to keep up the force for four months to come.

Mr. Brotherton

, under ordinary circumstances, should never have given his assent to the bill before the House, but seeing the pressing necessity of the case, he could not think of sacrificing the best interests of a very large portion of the community to any party feeling whatever. There were a quarter of a million of inhabitants in the borough of Manchester, and the state of agitation and excitement in which a great portion of that number were, should have much weight with all persons who respected life and property. He would, individually, have much pre- ferred to place the police in the hands of the borough corporation, but, that being now impossible, he felt bound to adopt the lesser evil, which was the bill as it then stood. The charier, which had superseded the power of the Court Leet, would have been sufficient for all the purposes of the borough, but for the efforts of interested parties. The chief opponent of the charter was the steward of the Lord of the Manor, who was also clerk to the street commissioners; and it was mainly through his influence that the legality of the charter was called in question. On obtaining their charter, the" corporation of Manchester, like men of business, at once set about establishing a good police; and they had advanced upwards of 20,000l. towards effecting that purpose out of their own pocket. That money they had advanced on the faith of the validity of the charter, and it would be very hard upon them now if it were advanced for nothing. As matters stood at present, ninety-five of the street commissioners out of the two hundred, the number usually acting, had declared the charter invalid, and in consequence of that declaration, the inhabitants of the borough had generally refused to pay the police-rate. The corporation were thus disabled from paying the police any longer. The old establishment could not raise the money for that purpose either, and thus the lives and property of the people of Manchester were placed in imminent jeopardy. Seeing this, he was not at all inclined to throw disgrace upon the corporation of that borough by disbanding the present police, or, by consenting to let the question remain in abeyance, to please the party who had been opposed to the charter. He, therefore, called on the House to give its assent to the bill.

Mr. M. Philips

said, that his only motive in supporting the measure was the peace of the community which he represented. The facts of the case were briefly these. A police force had been established in Manchester by the corporation on obtaining their charter, but funds were now wanting to pay them, or would be very soon, in consequence of the question which had been raised as to the validity of the power of raising a rate for that purpose, under that act of incorporation. Without, therefore, taking upon himself to decide the question of validity, he should support the bill, because it contained the means of providing a good and proper police force for the borough; and he felt bound to say, whatever decision should be come to in respect to that question, no rate could be raised in Manchester until it was settled. It had been stated, that the collection of a rate, for the purposes of the police, had been commenced by the commissioners of streets under the old system, but they had only been able to get together 1,200l. as yet, the amount required being about 8,000l. per annum. To show how effectually the amount of the police-rate had decreased since the question as to the validity of the charter was mooted, he should read the returns of the sums received in two consecutive months of each of three years past. In 1837 the collection for the first two months was:—

1st week £1,009 3 0
2nd week 1,049 10 6
making for the two weeks conjoined the sum of 2,058l. 13s. 6d. In 1838 it stood thus:—
1st week (27th August) £957 3 10
2nd week 1,033 14 6
Making for that period £1,990 18 4
While in 1839, for the same space of time, commencing with the 31st of July, the sum was no more than;—
For the 1st week £813 19 8
For the 2nd week 312 5 1
Being but £1,126 4 9
The fact was, that the rate had been appealed against as invalid by 92 out of 140 commissioners of streets; and after that appeal, which had been published in the local newspapers, together with an assertion of the illegality of the rate, it would be next to impossible to induce the people of Manchester to pay it until the question was decided. There was another reason why they refused to pay the rate, as attempted to be levied by the commissioners of streets under the old system, which was in itself a sufficient explanation of their objection, if no other existed. The commissioners proceeded to levy 1s. 6d. in the pound, while for the same purposes, under the charter, the levy was not more than 1s. 1d. in the pound. While the validity of the rate levied under the charter was in question, he thought, unless the bill before the House was passed, that great danger to person and property would accrue in Manchester. Nothing but the perfect consciousness of that danger, and the impossibility of finding any other remedy, could have induced him by supporting the measure, to abandon for a moment those principles of self-government which he had always professed.

Lord G. Somerset

was much obliged to the hon. Member for informing the House of the exact state of the case as regarded Manchester, for, up to that moment, he had not been aware of the immediate necessity of the measure for that borough. He was, therefore, a convert to the bill; and, being so, he was very glad that it had not been made a supplementary measure to assist the corporation. He could not help feeling some slight degree of surprise, however, at the conduct of the hon. Member for Salford, in supporting the bill before the House and opposing the Birmingham Police Bill, which went on the same principle. It was quite clear, however, from what had been stated, that there was no power in the corporation of Manchester to raise the police-rate until the question as to the validity of the charter had been legally decided; and, therefore, that there could be no police-rate until that took place. Believing that such a state of things should not be permitted at the present time, he was now ready to support the principle of the bill, reserving to himself the right of altering some clauses in committee.

Bill read a second time.