HC Deb 23 April 1841 vol 57 cc1055-63

On the Order of the Day for the House to go into committee of supply,

Viscount Mahon

said, that before the House went into committee, he wished to ask the noble Lord a question. On the 23rd of last month, the House passed a resolution, expressive of an opinion that the increasing number of convicts on board the hulks was an evil, and a strong desire to see a better system pursued. The House, it was true, was thinly attended on that occasion; but there were fifty-one for, and thirty against, the resolution, and he believed if there had been a fuller attendance, the decision would have been the same. A month having elapsed, and the noble Lord having apparently acquiesced in the resolution, in not having proposed its being rescinded, he wished to ask the noble Lord whether he had taken any steps, or whether the Government had any measure in contemplation for fulfilling the recommendation of the House; or, if not, whether he would give a pledge that with all due care the resolution should be fully and completely carried out?

Lord John Russell

said it was exceedingly difficult to take any certain course in pursuance of a resolution of so general a character as that to which the noble Lord alluded. He had not given a direct negative to the proposition contained in the resolution; for to the proposition by itself he felt no great objection. But what he stated was, that he did not think it desirable that the House should come to such a resolution; and he therefore moved the previous question, hoping that the noble Lord would hare been satisfied, and not have divided the House. However, the House did divide, and adopted the resolution of the noble Lord. There was a very elaborate report made by the committee on transportation, which committee was composed of persons holding the most opposite political opinions, and by men, some of whom were in office and some not. That committee came to certain resolutions, in which they decidedly disapproved of transportation of convicts to any settled districts in the colonies. With that opinion he agreed. The resolution alluded to by the noble Lord said nothing positively contrary to the opinion expressed by the committee; but the noble Lord in the course of his speech on that occasion, suggested the founding a new colony, to which convicts should be transported, instead of being sent on board the hulks. There was that course certainly open for adoption, or there was another course—that of confining transportation to a limited number of offenders, and establishing penitentiaries in this country for the confinement of the remainder. He (Lord J. Russell) was of opinion that the latter was the most desirable course to be pursued. For that purpose her Majesty's Ministers proposed a vote of money last year, and a similar vote would be proposed this year, for the purpose of building penitentiaries. He was certainly of opinion that it was not desirable to have a very large number of convicts on board the hulks. But that was only a temporary evil until the penitentiaries should be built.

Viscount Mahon

wished to ask the noble Lord whether the opinion he had just expressed was intended to be acted upon by the Government, and whether it was proposed to make any immediate progress in building new penitentiaries, or whether they were merely the abstract opinions of the noble Lord himself, and which were not intended to be carried out in practice by her Majesty's Government?

Lord John Russell

repeated, that in his opinion a certain number of convicts should be transported to districts not settled in the colonies, that a limited number should be confined in the hulks, and that the rest should be confined in the penitentiaries; but he could not exactly mention the numbers. This plan could not, however, be acted upon in the course of a few weeks; neither could any definite system be adopted upon a bare resolution of the House of Commons. The thing must be conducted according to the regular mode. He had before stated, that votes had been already proposed for building penitentiaries.

Viscount Mahon

was anxious to understand the noble Lord correctly. What he did understand the noble Lord to say was, that the course to be taken by the Government was settled before he (Viscount Mahon) introduced his motion on the subject; and that that course would be followed without any alteration.

Lord John Russell

, amidst considerable laughter, repeated his former statement, that the intention of the Government was, that a certain number of convicts—a smaller number than formerly—should be transported according, generally, with the views expressed in the report of the transportation committee; the Government agreeing with the opinions stated by that committee. That with regard to the other convicts which were detained in this country, it was the opinion of the Government that it was not advisable a very great number of them should be confined on board the hulks, but that they should be sent to well-conducted prisons, and where a system of prison discipline could be completely carried out. But this course could not have been established, in consequence of an abstract resolution of the House of Commons, nor could it be carried into effect in the space of a few weeks; but that it must be done according to a regular plan to be proposed by the Government to Parliament.

Sir Robert Peel

said, that this was a subject of great importance at all times, but of peculiar importance at the present moment, when there was evidently a great disposition on the part of the House to proceed to the utmost possible extent to abolish capital punishment. Therefore, whatever system of secondary punishments might be devised, should be made as efficacious as possible, of course agreeably with an enlarged humanity, and with sound principles of criminal jurisprudence. He was a Member of the Committee to which the noble Lord had referred, and in the general recommendation of that Committee as to the evils which the continuance of transportation, and particularly the assignment system, were entailing upon a colony circumstanced like New South Wales now was—that colony having outgrown its original purpose of a penal system—in that opinion he entirely concurred. He recollected that a proposal was made in that Committee which went to a positive recommendation of immediately abolishing transportation. On that occasion he stated, that it was impossible, looking to the number of persons sentenced to transportation, for any committee safely to recommend the immediate abolition of transportation in the present condition of this country, and in respect to the present system of secondary punishments. He, therefore, did not mean, by concurring in the proposal with respec to the discontinuance of transpor- tation to New South Wales, and particularly of the assignment system, to imply an opinion that transportation, under all circumstances, and with reference to all parts of her Majesty's dominions, ought to be abandoned. And he did hope, that the noble Lord, in the measures which the Government were about to propose, would not exclude from his consideration the propriety of continuing the punishment, and the severe punishment of expatriation, or transportation, call it by what name they pleased. He thought that, so far as this country was concerned, the punishment of certain crimes by transportation was a most efficacious kind of punishment—that it was a perfectly just and legitimate punishment, and one not open to any of the objections urged against capital punishment, not revolting to the feelings of humanity, and not inclining witnesses to be reluctant in giving evidence, or juries to convict. Then, again, so far as the impression to be made on the minds of persons likely to be charged with crime was concerned, if the abolition altogether of the terrors of capital punishment was to take place, he felt that they must, for the effectual punishment of crime, and for deterring others from crime, continue in their criminal code the punishment of transportation under some mode. With respect to New South Wales it was impossible for him to have heard the evidence given before the Transportation Committee without feeling that they were approaching to a state of society in that colony, in its present circumstances, that was pregnant with all the evils of slavery; that there was growing up among the different classes there, the prejudices and hostile feelings of freemen on the one hand, and of slaves on the other; and that those hostile feelings and prejudices were gradually banishing all social and physical comfort from the colony. He, therefore, cordially assented, that the assignment system should be discontinued, and that so far as the colony of New South Wales was concerned, transportation ought to be administered in the most moderate and considerate degree. If the noble Lord intended to place entire reliance upon imprisonment in the hulks or in penitentiaries, he would find himself mistaken as to the result. He could easily believe that punishment in the hulks and penitentiaries might be put upon a better system; but with all the improvements of which prison discipline was capable, two evils would probably arise out of that mode of punishment: first, the offenders would be led to rely upon the chance of remission, owing to the interference of friends in their favour; and, secondly, it would be found impossible to resort systematically to periods of confinement long enough adequately to punish the guilty. Humanity would revolt at the infliction of sentences of perpetual confinement, or even at confinement of any very considerable duration. At first they might not be as revolting as public executions, but among the multitude of cases, if only ten or twenty instances of aberration of intellect were to occur, it would be impossible to continue the system, and then another relaxation of the criminal code must take place. Supposing resort to be had to imprisonment for five or six years, annually a very large body of persons must be turned loose upon society who had undergone their sentences in the hulks or in penitentiaries. He was willing to admit, that some improvement of moral character might occur in consequence of confinement under a better system; but his own experience led him to believe, that it would not be so great as was anticipated. Prisoners, in the hope of indulgence, and of obtaining some degree of confidence, would conduct themselves well while in confinement, and when it was thought that their characters might be re-established, from joining again their old associates they would too frequently relapse into their old habits, and the hopes of amendment turn out to be merely delusive. He believed, that not fewer than 5,000 persons were annually sentenced to transportation.

Lord J. Russell

More than 4,000.

Sir R. Peel

would take it so, and of these, under a system merely of imprisonment, a large number would periodically be restored to society, and it would be impossible for the legislature by any measures to abate the existing prejudice against the employment of persons who had been punished for crimes in preference to others who had never been found guilty. On the other hand, a well-regulated system of transportation would remove the convict from the association of his companions, and having expiated his offence, he would not carry about with him in the colony the prison mark. If the criminal could be induced, abroad, to re- ly upon the produce of his honest labour for subsistence, under no, or few, disadvantages from the effects of his previous life, an immense advantage would be gained, not offered by any system of prison discipline at home, however well it might be regulated. The objections to imprisonment at home were, first, that the punishment would not be efficacious; and next, that when the offender was turned out upon society, even if he were a reformed man and anxious to redeem his character, he would not be able to do so, by reason of the prejudice that must exist against him, especially in a country like this, where there was an immense quantity of surplus honest labour. He hoped, therefore, that the noble Lord would not exclude from his consideration the possibility of combining secondary punishments with expatriation.

Lord J. Russell

said, he had been really misunderstood in what he had before stated to the House. The course which the Government intended to pursue with regard to the punishment of transportation—the punishment of death being confined to very few offenders—was to have three distinct species of punishment,—of transportation, confinement in prisons, and in the hulks. With regard to transportation, he certainly had always been of opinion that it was advisable to send a certain number of convicts abroad; that by sending them abroad they would obtain for them, after a certain period of punishment, the means of providing honestly for their own livelihood; because when they considered this punishment of transportation, they were bound to consider not only the immediate effect of it on our own country, but also on the society that they were establishing in another quarter of the globe: and what he certainly considered to be a very great evil was establishing a society in another quarter of the globe which really, if allowed to go on in the way in which it was proceeding, would have been a monstrous creation. With regard to the mode of doing this, it had appeared to him that there had been far too great a number of convicts sent out to our penal colonies. There was a great number to provide for, but many of these were only included under the sentence of transportation in consequence of acts passed ten or twelve years ago, for crimes which were not before punished with transportation; and there were seve- ral cases in which he thought that the punishment was most disproportionate. He remembered one case of a man who entered a small shop where bread was sold, and cut off a slice of bread for himself, and said that he was determined he would never pay for it, and he was sentenced to transportation for seven years. He had applied to know whether there was any falsehood or mis-statement in the representation of the case, and he had found that there was not, but that, the man had been convicted before, and was a person of bad character, but that this was the offence for which he was transported. When they spoke of 4,000 convicts, this number included many who had not committed crimes which ought to subject them to such a punishment. He thought that in such cases a moderate punishment would suffice. He agreed with the right hon. Baronet that in cases of fifteen or twenty years' solitary imprisonment they might very often disturb the mental faculties, and that therefore such terms might involve an unnecessary degree of cruelty. He would give directions accordingly to the Governor of Van Dieman's Land with regard to the treatment of the convicts there and at Norfolk Island. There would be still no less than 2,000 convicts sent out every year; and it must be borne in mind, that whatever might be the advantages of the system of transportation, it was their duty to avoid the formation of colonies of which the great mass—say, three-fourths of the whole community—would be men branded as felons.

Mr. Hawes

exceedingly regretted, that a subject of so much importance should be incidentally discussed. After calling the attention of the House to two of the resolutions of the committee on transportation, he expressed his decided opinion, if offenders were to be imprisoned, it would be found not only more effectual, but much more economical, to confine them at home than abroad. The system of transportation had hitherto cost the country not much less than 500,000l. a year, and he believed, that punishment in penitentiaries, properly regulated, would much more tend to the reformation of the guilty. The stigma of conviction would follow the offender as much abroad as at home; and with regard to long imprisonments producing alienation of mind, he had closely examined eight cases of the kind from America, and he had found that the failure of intellect was distinctly traceable to other causes, and to diseases existing before the parties were sentenced to confinement. Severity was necessary, and he asked whether it was likely to be administered under a better system in a remote colony, or at home, under the immediate eye and control of the Government? He trusted that the question would not be allowed to rest upon this conversation, but that it would be separately and distinctly considered on some future occasion.

Mr. Wakley

was of opinion, that a night ought to be set apart for the consideration of this important subject. He earnestly requested the noble Lord not to be led away by real or supposed information from America, that long imprisonment did not produce aberration of mind. Fatuity, disease, and death, were the consequences of such inflictions; and if they were introduced into the system of this country, capital punishments, instead of being diminished, would be increased. Death would be inflicted, though not by the hand of the executioner. It was impossible to introduce confinement for any long period, such as ten or fifteen years, with any regard to the common claims of humanity. Sometimes only three years' imprisonment was utterly destructive of the future health of the sufferer. The great business of the Legislature ought to be, to prevent rather than to punish crime, and instead of debating on systems of severity, the House ought to consider how punishments could be rendered less frequent, by improving the morals of the lower orders. He, therefore, hoped that the noble Lord would cause a careful inquiry to be made into the effect of the systems pursued in this country, and that he would not determine upon the course to be pursued, till he had investigated this matter fully and perfectly.

Colonel Sibthorp

was sorry to be obliged to inform the noble Lord, that if he persisted in his determination at that late hour, to take into consideration those important documents which had so recently been laid on the Table of the House, he must be prepared to listen to a speech from him of four or five hour's duration. He had never, during his experience in that House, seen such an attempt to smuggle papers into it. He hoped that the noble Lord would postpone his motion, and name some future day for the examination of these documents.

Lord John Russell

could assure the hon. and gallant Member, that he had no desire whatever to take any improper advantage. It was desirable to go into Committee of Supply, because it was necessary to vote certain sums of money, for the purpose of paying off Exchequer-bills.

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