HC Deb 09 August 1843 vol 71 cc410-2
Mr. M. Milnes

said he would now put a question to the right hon. Baronet the Home Secretary relative to a girl of the name of Jane Ward, who was committed to the House of Correction on Tuesday, the 1st of August, as he thought the case involved important matter for consideration. A person of the name of Jane Ward was brought before Mr. Combe, a magistrate of Clerkenwell police, charged with begging in the street. Her accuser, who was the sole witness against her, was a man who called himself an officer of the Mendicity Society, who declared that he saw her beg. The girl denied the charge. No police-officer remembered having seen her before; no police-officer knew her, and no person came forward to state that the girl had asked alms of him. There was no primâ facie case of any kind against the girl; there was no charge of importunity and no pretence of violence, but the mendicity officer who brought her up and accused, stated he saw her beg, and she was committed to prison by the magistrate solely on the evidence of a third person, she denying that she had begged at all. The question he wished to ask was simply this (and he believed the matter to be one of great general importance), whether it was legal or not for any third person to interfere in a matter of this kind so far as to bring to justice another person on the sole ground of receiving alms, without being charged by any party from whom he or she was supposed to have received alms? and whether, under such circumstances, the magistrate was justified in condemning the girl on such evidence?

Sir James Graham

observed that the hon. Gentleman had put the facts of this case in his own way. He had, however, the deposition on oath of the party, by whose evidence the individual had been convicted. The House would bear in mind, that by the law of England, destitution was provided for as a matter of right, but it also provided that mendicancy should be considered an illegal act. He agreed with the hon. Gentleman in thinking that it would not be desirable to strain that law; but still it could not be denied that in this metropolis the general habit of begging should be restrained. Now, in this case, he found the facts very different from those that had been stated by the hon. Gentleman. The statement was quite true that this case rested only on the evidence of one witness, a person employed by the Mendicity Society. This officer deposed to his seeing the person in question, on the day named by him, begging more than once—that he saw her begging from two individuals—that he saw her receive money twice, and that on a former occasion he had seen her begging in another part of London. On these facts being proved the magistrates considered himself justified in treating this woman as a common beggar, and in coming to the conclusion that she ought to be committed for seven days.

Sir R. H. Inglis

said, that as he found he should not be out of order in alluding to this subject, he hoped to be allowed to address to the House a very few words upon it. He (Sir R. Inglis) was one of the last men who would wish to bring the conduct of magistrates under the condemnation of the House; but at the same time he felt that the influence of the Crown would not be injuriously exercised if the expressions which the right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Home Department had addressed to the House were addressed to the metropolitan magistrates—namely, that they ought not to enforce to the extreme rigour of the law the penalties incurred under the Police Act in respect of those cases of mendicancy, to one of which his hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract had adverted. There ought, he thought, to be a distinction made between the sturdy and insolent beggar and the almost silent sufferer, who was sometimes met with in the streets of the metropolis. The question in this case was, did or did not the individual ask for, or did she merely receive alms? He could not help thinking that when they knew the state of suffering which existed around their own splendour and comfort, they ought to feel some sympathy in such an instance as that put forward on the present occasion, and not enforce the law to its rigour. He repeated his opinion that his right hon. Friend would well exercise the influence of the Crown if he communicated to the police magistrates the kind of feeling which he himself had expressed in the observations which had constituted his reply to the question put by the hon. Member for Pontefract. His (Sir R. Inglis's) point was, that the police-magistrates ought not to lend themselves to mendicity societies or to any other persons, and punish individuals for merely receiving alms, nor unless the individual charged was sturdy and insolent.

Subject dropped.