HC Deb 02 August 1844 vol 76 cc1706-13

On the Motion for the House to go into Committee on the Insolvent Debtors Bill,

The Solicitor General

proceeded to explain its principal provisions. The provisions branched into three different heads, each of which required a separate and distinct consideration. The first part of the Bill related to the amendment of the law of cessio bonorum; the second, and, undoubtedly, the most important part, proposed to abolish Imprisonment for Debt in executions under 20l.; and the remaining part of the Bill introduced some Amendments into the machinery of the Court of Bankruptcy. It was his conscientious conviction that the measure would be found extremely beneficial. It had been stated, as an objection to the measure, that it would injure the humbler classes of society by diminishing the facility of credit, but he was rather inclined to doubt whether that was a good objection. For although it might in some cases, be of advantage to people in humble circumstances to get credit, it was more generally attended by consequences quite the reverse of advantageous. The hon. and learned Gentleman then proceeded to read several passages from the evidence taken before a Committee of the House on the subject, tending to show that the abolition of Imprisonment for Debt would not have the effect of abolishing bonâ fide credit, but only of making tradesmen more careful. Mr. Dampier, who presided over the Stannaries Court, in Cornwall, and had jurisdiction over one hundred thousand persons in cases of small debts, but who had no power of ordering the imprisonment of debtors, gave it as his opinion that the abolition of Imprisonment for Debt would only have the effect of making tradesmen more careful. Any possible injury which might arise from this Bill, was not to be weighed in the balance against the evils inflicted by the present system. Had the House read the evidence on this subject?—They read of six or seven persons confined in a dungeon, with nothing but straw to lie upon. When this Bill was objected to on the ground of mercy to the debtor, he asked them to consider the evils attending the systen of imprisonment. What benefit was it to the creditor to be able to incarcerate the body of his miserable debtor? Was the debtor any more likely to pay what he owed? Certainly not; for the class of persons affected by the Bill had not the means of doing so. In the arguments against this Bill he had not been able to discover any which were entitled to consideration, except that to which he had adverted; and after what he had stated, he trusted the measure would be allowed to go into Committee.

Mr. M. Philips

was unwilling to stand up there as an advocate for imprisonment of poor persons for small sums; but, as the representative of a large trading community, he must express his wish that time should be afforded for maturely considering a measure which was calculated to have so great an effect on the trading portion of the community. He did hope, therefore, that the Bill would be delayed until hon. Members for large trading and manufacturing districts had time to communicate with their constituents on the subject.

Mr. S. Wortley

, while he concurred in much of what had been urged by his hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General, agreed with the hon. Member for Manchester that sufficient time had not been given for the due consideration of this important Bill. He had a petition from Sheffield, which stated that tradesmen in that town were against the measure. He was not wholly opposed to the Bill, but he was averse from proceeding with it in the absence of all the Members of the legal profession; and he thought more time should be given for considering so important a measure.

Mr. Aglionby

regretted that a measure like the present should have been deferred to the last week of the Session. He had no wish to continue a severely coercive mode of recovering small debts, but he concurred with his hon. Friends near him in thinking that time had not been given for considering this Bill. There were many wise and humane provisions in it, and he did not feel justified in opposing its progress, though he would endeavour to correct some very objectionable parts of it in the Committee.

Mr. Spooner

said, that the hon. and learned Gentleman, the Solicitor General, had made a powerful appeal to the feelings of the House on this subject; but hon. Members must bear in mind that they were bound to legislate upon facts, and not from mere feeling. He knew nothing of law, but he did know, and had much practical experience in trade, and in the system of credit in extensive trading communities; and he had no doubt that such a measure as the present would be injurious to credit in those districts. But if this Bill were good in principle, why not apply it to debts generally. Why deprive the poor creditor of his remedy for recovering a small debt, and continue it to the creditor to whom a large sum was due? He could not acquiesce in the distinction which the Bill sought to establish in both these respects.

Sir J. Graham

said, that the argument of the absence of so many hon. Members of the legal profession was not well founded. He had great respect for Gentlemen of the long robe, and was always glad of their presence in the discussions of the House; but he could not take their absence as an argument for delaying any important measure before the House. Let hon. Members consider how far hon. Members of the legal profession took a part in the general business of the House. The House generally met in the first or second week of February, and at about the end of that month the Spring Circuits commenced, and the Gentlemen of the long robe generally left the House to attend them. Now, it was well known that the great struggles—he might almost say, the great annual party struggles for power and predominance, took place in Parliament between Easter and Whitsuntide. Until these struggles were decided and brought to a close, the proper business of legislation could not be said to commence. It was not till then that the regular business of Parliament begun in right earnest. During these struggles they had the advantage of the presence of the lawyers, but it should be borne in mind that, soon after Whitsuntide, the Summer Circuits commenced, and the legal Members again betook themselves to their forensic duties, so that about four months of the Session were spent in their absence; and if no important legal measure were to be brought in unless the Gentlemen of the long robe were present the business of legislation might as well be given up. He therefore, much as he respected lawyers, could not relinquish the exercise of common sense for the sake of Common Law. Then it was said that this measure was brought in at too advanced period of the Session. The reason of that was this:—A Bill was laid on the Table of the other House, embodying the general principle of the present Bill. That, with two other measures of a similar nature, were referred to a Select Committee, consisting, amongst others, of the most distinguished law Lords of that House, and the Bill now before the House was the result of the recommendations of that Committee. It might be asked how he could account for the apparent change in his opinion which induced him to lay before the House a measure so much at variance in principle with another Bill (the County Courts Bill) which he had brought in in the early part of the Session. He would explain. Soon after the introduction of the County Courts Bill he found that another measure had been introduced by Lord Cottenham, having for its principle the total Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt. Finding that the passing of Lord Cottenham's Bill, if the House should adopt it, would render it necessary to make most important changes in the County Courts Bill, he suspended that Bill until he should ascertain the final decision of Parliament on the other. That would account for the late period at which this Bill was brought in. But there were other reasons which induced him to bring in the Bill even at this late period. He was now in possession of certain facts of which he was not aware at the time he brought in his County Courts Bill; and he would say, that the knowledge of those facts rendered it imperative on Parliament, as a Christian Legislature, not to separate without enacting some measure which would put an end to such horrible scenes as he was about to detail to the House. He had only directed the inspection of four of the County Courts of Requests' Prisons, but he would read to the House extracts from the Reports of one of the inspectors, as not unfair specimens of the state of those gaols generally; and to show that it was such as to render it impossible for Parliament to rise without the existing evils being suppressed. First, as to the goal before alluded to—of the Court of Requests at Birmingham; in the month of January last a petition had been presented to the House, stating the horrors of that place. In consequence thereof he had sent down Mr. Perry, a man of high honour and integrity, and upon whose accuracy he could rely, to inspect the gaol and report thereon. His Report was made up on the 19th of January, and he (Sir J. Graham) was sure that when he read some of its contents to the House they would agree with him, that Howard himself with all his philanthropy had never made larger discoveries of human misery than he was about to announce to them. It would scarcely be credited that at this enlightened period, and with the enlarged views which prevailed throughout the country, such a system of imprisonment could exist as that at Birmingham. The prison (the Report stated), consists of the kitchen, cellars, and attics of a house situate in a court near the High-street. The remainder of the building is occupied by the keeper of the Court of Requests. The kitchen forms the day room of the Insolvent Debtors who are waiting their discharge; and the women are, from want of a day room, compelled to sit in that in which they slept. The day-room for the male prisoners has a scullery adjoining, and is eighteen feet in length by fourteen in breadth, and sixteen feet in height. There are besides two cellars, in one of which the prisoners wash themselves. At the time of my visit there were eighteen prisoners in the gaol, and the number has often been much larger. The number of the visitors who may be received is in reality unlimited, as the keeper told me that he had no power to exclude any one, except in case of a riot; and that thep rohibition of spirits was only nominal, and had not been actually enforced. The keeper further stated, that when riots occurred he had called in the assistance of the police, from the persuasion that his life would be in danger unless he did so. The general dormitory of the debtors is a room in the attics, eleven feet in length by sixteen in breadth. On each of the shorter sides of the room there is a platform raised about a foot from the ground, like the stages in a kennel, and which is littered with loose straw. As my visit was paid early in the morning I saw the debtors in bed, and there were six in the one and six in the other. I was informed that the number had often been much greater, and that very lately there were fifteen on the one side and eight on the other. This disproportion arose from an immemorial privilege which existed in favour of one of the sides called the 'king's side,' the king not being obliged to take up more than seven on his side, although there might be so many on the other side that they were obliged to lie with their heads and feet alternately. The prisoners are very scantily provided with covering, and that is about to be diminished by the necessity of sending a portion of them to be washed. For food they depend on an allowance of bread made to them as paupers, upon application. They had no chapel which they could attend, and no medical aid for them when sick, unless application was made to the parish, in which case the parish surgeon came to their assistance. The prisoners have been allowed to retain swords, staves, and other weapons in their possession, and these were only taken away on the breaking out of disturbances among them. These weapons were used in a kind of mock ceremony, performed when any one was received into the gaol, and which was known by the name of 'chum.' The object of the ceremony was to extract 2s. 6d. from new comers, and that sum was sometimes raised from parts of his clothing. In consequence of the Report from which he (Sir J. Graham) had just read, he remonstrated with the Birmingham authorities, and called upon them to put an end to such a system of things. In consequence of that remonstrance, some Amendments were made; but even these left a great deal still to be done, as appeared by the Second Report which had been made by him upon the state of the prison. He would not fatigue the House by reading that Second Report, but if he did so, he was satisfied that the House would be of opinion with him that the state of the gaol was still such that it ought not any longer to be continued. The hon. Member for Anglesea had put to him a question on the same subject with respect to the Court of Requests gaol at Kidderminster, and he had directed Mr. Perry to visit that gaol also in the end of June last. He would read to the House the Report which had been made upon that inspection;— At the time (said Mr. Perry) when I visited the gaol, there were six male debtors confined under executions from the Court of Requests. They occupied a single room paved with bricks, the extent of which is twelve feet in length by twelve in breadth, which is destitute of table, bed, seat, or any other species of furniture whatever, and there is no fireplace or any means of lighting a fire. A heap of straw is scattered over the floor of half the room, on which the prisoners sleep, for they have no other bedclothes, and from time to time the worst part of the straw is removed and better substituted for it. The privy occupies a corner of the room, but from the oppressiveness of the stench the prisoners have been allowed to close it with straw. The yard into which the room opens measures thirteen feet in length by twelve feet in breadth, and is so badly drained, that in wet weather the water lies in it to such a degree as to confine the prisoners entirely to their room. This yard is closed in by a high wall, surmounted by an iron lattice. The prisoners are very dirty as they never take off their clothes, and are allowed only two jugsfull of water per day for drinking and washing themselves. Their diet consists of an allowance of the quarter part of a quartern loaf of bread per day, but their friends are permitted to bring them any other articles of food while the officer is there. Iii case of illness there is no means of getting assistance, for though the prisoners might succeed in making themselves heard by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, they could not afford any help without the beadle who lives in a remote part of the town. Female prisoners, if confined there, were deprived of all separate accomodation and cannot be visited by their own sex in cases of sickness, except while the officer is there. When it was recollected that the shortest period of imprisonment awarded by a court of requests was ten days, and that a person might be detained for forty days, which period might, by further executions, be extended indefinitely, he (Sir J. Graham) thought the House would agree with him when he said that it would be difficult to suppose any sufficiently strong term to apply to the system of suffering and privation which had been thus exposed. He would not disgust the House by going any further, although he could read to it a Report upon another gaol near Birmingham, and it would be borne in mind that the present state of the Court of Requests Prisons at Birmingham was, though improved, still disgraceful to that town. In progress of time, such a system of things might be amended, but any Government would be acting in a most unjustifiable manner in allowing Parliament to separate without prescribing a remedy. The question, therefore, arose whether the House would deal with the evils themselves or apply the real cure by going to the law itself which had occasioned them. He believed that it was not for the benefit of the labouring classes that credit should be so loosely extended to them as at present. On the whole, he conceived that the House was bound to provide a remedy for evils such as he had brought before it; but no remedy would be effectual if they did not at once and in a decisive manner abolish a law which he held to be indefensible. He was himself opposed to any reform which could be only effected at the expense of parties who were really innocent of the abuses to be swept away, but if compensation was due to judges or clerks or any one else, it ought to be provided. He had heard the hon. Member for Liskeard lay down a principle that the reluctance to injure innocent parties whom legislation might affect was a serious impediment to salutary reform. He (Sir J. Graham) was not disposed to pursue such legislation, but he could not endure for one moment that it should be said that innocent debtors should be in their persons subjected to such cruelties and that their moral characters should, in consequence, suffer such degradation. He trusted that the House would not, for the sake of any amount of compensation, inflict upon imprisoned debtors three, six, or, perhaps, twelve months longer duration of such miseries.

House in Committee.

On the 1st Clause,

Mr. Spooner

said, that all he had heard did not satisfy his mind, that he should be called on in so hasty a manner completely to change the Law of Debtor and Creditor and he thought that such an act as would fully correct the evils of the existing system required time for further consideration. It would, in his opinion, have been much better if the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham) had immediately met the evils which he had stated to the House in the month of January by a Local Act, instead of deferring his remedy to the month of August.

Sir J. Graham

explained, that his attention was first drawn to the subject by riots at Birmingham, but the state of things there was not singular, and the four Reports to which he had adverted were the only cases which he had been able to examine.

Bill went through Committee.

House resumed. Bill reported.

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