HC Deb 24 February 1841 vol 56 cc940-1
Mr. Charles Hamilton

the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, is doubtless aware of the general nature of the question I have given notice of, and I am equally aware of the reply that I shall in part receive; but, although I know that, under the 2nd section of the New Poor-law Act, assistant commissioners have the power of summoning individuals and examining them on oath, I trust they have not the sanction of the noble Lord in exercising those inquisitorial powers that I have now to complain of. I shall not, however, occupy the time of the House, but with its permission will read an extract from a letter which I have received from a magistrate of the county of Bucks, which will at once put the noble Lord in possession of the nature of my query. The writer is a most intelligent magistrate of that county, and not, as the noble Lord may suppose, an ultra-Tory or Radical, and therefore, as a matter of course, opposed to the New Poor-law bill; but, on the contrary, a general supporter of that measure, and in his political creed a good sound Whig. The writer says— The question I wish to put to Lord John Russell is, whether, when he gave powers to the assistant Poor-law commissioners to examine on oath, he ever contemplated their carrying on private examinations into matters cognisable by the common law of the land, and especially whether he ever anticipated that they should put men upon a species of trial, hearing witnesses on oath against them, and not allowing them any legal advisers in matters which, if proved, would blast their characters and make them liable to severe penalties under the common law? That they do this sometimes I can prove, as I have a large mass of evidence in my possession, that has been so taken against a most respectable man, he being charged with embezzlement; it is now some weeks since he was thus tried, and is as yet in complete ignorance of what maybe the issue of this unconstitutional species of attack upon his good name. He of course is most materially injured by it, and has no means of redress. The writer proceeds to say, that he considers there is much 'good in the New Poor-law, but where it works well it works in the teeth of the commissioners; whenever the guardians carry out literally their rules it is most oppressive.' I think the noble Lord will allow that the question I have ventured to ask is not an irrelevant one, that it effects the constitutional liberty of the subject, and, that according to the answer of the noble Lord many Members will be guided as to the vote they shall give when that clause of the new bill relating to the powers of the commissioners comes under the consideration of this House.

Lord J. Russell

said, that with respect to the power of the Poor-law commissioners to take evidence on oath, it was given them by the act, and it was therefore unnecessary for him to give any other answer. With respect to the propriety of exercising that power, he might, with equal propriety be called upon to discuss any other provision of the bill by way of question. It seemed to him that there might be certain questions in which it would be proper for the commissioners to examine in this manner. Whether in this particular case there had been any abuse of power he was unable to state, not knowing the circumstances which, perhaps, on the discussion of the Poor-law Amendment Bill, the hon. Gentleman would state to the House.

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