HC Deb 07 August 1844 vol 76 cc1887-95

On the Motion for the third reading of the Insolvent Debtors' Bill,

Mr. Monckton Milnes

proposed to insert the following Clause:— And whereas, since the 11th day of November, 1842, the duties of Taxing Master in the Court of Bankruptcy have been performed by one of the Deputy Registrars of the said Court, and the duties of such Deputy Registrar have been performed by Thomas Acton Warburton, Esq., barrister-at-law; be it enacted, that such person shall be paid by the Governor and Company of the Bank of England, out of the fund placed to the credit of the Accountant in Bankruptcy, intituled, 'The Secretary of Bankrupts' Account,' such remuneration for his services, not exceeding, as the Lord Chancellor shall think reasonable, and by his order in writing shall direct. The facts of the case were these:—Mr. Richardson, who had been registrar in Mr. Commissioner Evan's Court, had since 1842 acted as Taxing Master in Bankruptcy, and Mr. Warburton had performed the duties of Deputy Registrar in Mr. Commissioner Evan's Court without remuneration. The Lord Chancellor was of opinion, that under the provisions of the Act of 1842 he had no power to award Mr. Warburton compensation, but the present Motion was made with the concurrence and approval of the Lord Chancellor.

Clause brought up and read a first time.

On the question that it be read a second time,

Sir J. Graham

said, that the Lord Chancellor had had nothing to do with the original appointment of Mr. Warburton, who had been selected by Mr. Commissioner Evans as Deputy Registrar. It appeared to him it was a speculation on the part of Mr. Warburton, which had turned out a bad one, and he had now abandoned it, not having performed the duties for two months. It had appeared to him that the best thing would be to confirm Mr. Richardson as Taxing Master, and to appoint Mr. Warburton Registrar; but things had assumed, since he last addressed the House, a different aspect. The Lord Chancellor had promised the office to a gentleman whose case had been brought before the House by the hon. Member for Liskeard—a gentleman who had been deprived of his office by the Act regulating the Court of Exchequer, without compensation. He had at the time admitted that the case was a hard one, and had pledged himself to consider it favourably. That Gentleman was Mr. Lee, and to him the Lord Chancellor had promised this office. Under these circumstances, although he did not like the principle of Barristers performing the duties of public offices on speculation, yet he must admit that Mr. Warburton had performed his duties most efficiently, and he would leave the proposition in the hands of the House.

Mr. C. Buller

expressed his approval of the kind and considerate way in which both the right hon. Gentleman and the Lord Chancellor had acted in the case of Mr. Lee. With regard to the case of Mr. Warburton, it could hardly be called a speculation. It was clear that the duties must be performed, and Mr. Warburton had undertaken them under the express sanction of the Lord Chancellor. Parliament had sanctioned the experiment, and having so sanctioned it, was it fair to take Mr. Warburton's services for a year and a half without remuneration? If they could arrange so as to give Mr. Warburton the promise of an office it would be the best arrangement, but they had no right to put such conditions on the Lord Chancellor, and therefore he should support the Motion.

Sir R. Peel

considered, that Mr. Warburton had a fair claim to remuneration Under ordinary circumstances he would have most probably been appointed to an office under the Act; but the House had heard how that office had been disposed of. He thought the claim of Mrs. Warburton to remuneration was clear, and he should give the Motion his cordial support.

Mr. Hawes

said, the arrangement was one which had conduced to the public benefit, and he, therefore considered Mr. Warburton was fully entitled to compensation.

Mr. R. Yorke

considered Mr. Warburton had taken up this office as a speculation, without proper authority, and he should certainly take the sense of the House against the Clause.

Mr. Wakley

would support the hon. Gentleman if he divided against the Clause. The principle was so obnoxious and it opened such a door to corruption, that he certainly thought they ought not to sanction it. This gentleman had undertaken it as a speculation, for there were no funds out of which he could be paid. [Mr. M. Milnes thought there were,] Then he had made a mistake. As a lawyer, Mr. Warburton ought to have known better, and he ought to suffer for his ignorance. The principle sought to be established was a most dangerous one.

The Solicitor General

admitted that his first impression had been adverse to the claim of Mr. Warburton, but when he considered the case, he thought it probable that Mr. Warburton might have been induced to believe that the Lord Chancellor had power to award him compensation, and he really thought that Mr. Warburton was fairly entitled to compensation.

Mr. Henley

thought the Lord Chancellor had just as much power to give Mr. Warburton a berth now as he ever had. It struck him as a speculation, and if he had any claim it ought to have been brought forward by the Government on their own responsibility.

The House divided:—Ayes 44 Noes 5: Majority 39.

List of the AYES.
Acland, Sir T. D. Hope, G. W.
Acland, T. D. Jermyn, Earl
Baring, hon. W. B. Knight, H. G.
Baring, T. Macaulay, rt. hn. T. B.
Berkeley, hon. H. F. Newdegate, C. N.
Blackburne, J. I. Nicholl, rt. hn. J.
Bodkin, W. H. Peel, rt. hn. Sir R.
Borthwick, P. Peel, J.
Brotherton, J. Polhill, F.
Buller, C. Pringle, A.
Burrell, Sir C. M. Smith, rt. hon. T. B. C.
Clerk, Sir G. Somerset, Lord G.
Duncombe, T. Spooner, R.
Eliot, Lord Sutton, hon. H. M.
Entwistle, W. Thesiger, Sir F.
Escott, B. Trench, Sir W. F.
Forman, T. S. Trevor, hon. G. R.
Gaskell, J. Milnes Verner, Col.
Gore, M' Wyse, T.
Goulburne, rt. Hn. H. Young, J.
Graham, rt. hn. Sir J.
Greene, T. TELLERS.
Hardy, J. Milnes, J.
Hawes, B. Lennox, Lord A.
List of the NOES.
Henley, J. W. Warburton, H.
Kemble, H. TELLERS
Morris, D. Yorke, H. R.
Trotter, J. Wakley, T.

Clause read a second time, committed, the blank was filled up with the words "eight hundred pounds."

Clause added to the Bill.

Mr. Spooner

moved as an Amendment, that the operation of the 54th and 55th Clauses should be postponed until the month of March. He was aware that he was occupying a very ungracious position, in appearing there to advocate the continued imprisonment of various poor debtors now waiting for their liberation. He, however, objected to the Clause, for two reasons, first, because it would inflict a great injury on industrious artisans in large towns, by depriving them of the only means of obtaining credit; personal security is the only security they have to give; and by these Clauses personal security will be made of no avail:—and secondly, because by these Clauses coming into immediate operation, great injustice would be done to numerous small tradesmen who have given credit under the existing law, and who ought to have time to get in their money before the law is altered. He admitted that the state of discipline in small debt prisons was bad; but they ought not to pass a measure of this nature merely on account of local mal-administration in prison discipline. He cautioned the House against attempting to remedy one evil by calling a greater one into existence. If this Bill came into operation at once, it would be impossible for the labouring man to get credit, and credit was necessary to his subsistence; it would certainly greatly palliate the evil to which the labouring classes would be exposed by this Bill, to defer its coming into operation until the month of March, in order to give them time to prepare themselves for the change which was about to come upon them. To show the beneficial operation of the power of ordering imprisonment being conferred on Courts of Request, and the small amount of imprisonment actually inflicted, ha held in his hand a paper by which it appeared that for several years the annual average of causes tried in the Court of Requests at Manchester was 4,000—of these 1,200 proceeded to execution—and of these executions, not 150 were carried on to imprisonment. He had presented a petition from the Chamber of Commerce of Bristol, pressing the necessity of delay; petitions to the same effect had been presented from Manchester, from the shopkeepers of Southwark, and other places, they all prayed for delay, and urged that if this Bill were carried in its present shape, it would inflict a great injury on the large body of tradesmen, who had given credit to the labouring classes, on the faith of the law continuing in its present state. He had received various letters from different tradesmen, who complained that if the power of imprisonment was taken away, they would be deprived of the security on which they had given persons credit. Mr. Spooncr read part of a letter he had received from a tradesman in Birmingham, stating that he had ttusted various young clerks, who had no property, but who had good situations, who for want of proper clothes could not, without such credit, have obtained those situations; fear of imprisonment and consequent loss of situation ensured payment; but already had he felt in several instances the effect of the proposed measure: as they diminished the fear of imprisonment, they took away the stimulus to pay. The House had had no opportunity of examining the evidence upon which the House of Lords had decided in favour of this Bill. He should have liked to have had a Committee of Inquiry, before the House decided in favour of this Bill; for although those who had introduced it were perfectly competent to decide upon general principles, yet they did not possess that practical knowledge of the subject, which would enable them properly to legislate upon it. It would be a dangerous experiment to change the system of credit so suddenly as was proposed to change it by this Bill; and he besought the House to pause, before they acceded to the Bill. Mr. Spooner objected also to the practical operation of the Bill. If it was right in principle to abolish Imprisonment for Debt, why limit it to 20l.—the 20l. to the small tradesman was as important as larger sums to larger traders, and ought to have the same measure of protection. He called upon those Members who advocated the total abolition of Imprisonment for Debt to consider if the soundness of the principle might not be called into question by the bad working of a partial, and therefore unjust and imperfect measure. He concluded by moving that in the 54th Clause the words "from and after the passing of this Act," be omitted, and the words "from and after the 25th of March next" be substituted for them.

Mr. Kemble

seconded the Motion. This was an ex post facto law against the creditor, by depriving him of the security of imprisonment, on which security he had given his debtor credit. He had returns from a court of requests for the year 1839. In that year 5,682 causes had come on for hearing; 2,543 executions had been issued against the person, and only 25 against the goods; 1,741 of those executions had not been carried into effect; 990 of the persons taken had been discharged before the terms of their imprisonment had expired, and 478 only had suffered the full period of the imprisonment. It was well to consider the case of debtors, but creditors ought to be considered also.

Mr. H. Berkeley

had presented a petition against the Bill which had been agreed to at a most respectable meeting of tradesmen in Bristol; but after the statement of the Solictor General and the right hon. Baronet, he was convinced that legislation was necessary, and that he could not hope for delay. He had stated as much at the time, although he had stated his objections to certain Clauses. He thought it would be advisable that some little delay should be interposed before the Bill came into operation; but if the Government were determined that the Bill should come into immediate operation he would advise the hon. Member for Birmingham to withdraw his Motion. If he perservered in the Motion, he (Mr. H. Berkeley), although he wished for delay, would be compelled to vote against him for he believed it would be a greater evil to lose the Bill than to have it come into immediate operation.

Sir J. Graham

had never heard a fairer speech than that of the hon. Member for Bristol. He believed that if the measure ought to come into operation at all, it ought to come into operation immediately. With regard to the working classes, it was said that the Bill would entirely deprive them of credit. If that were the case, it could make no difference to them when the Bill came into operation. But he could not think that legitimate credit would be at all narrowed. Many were annually imprisoned, without, he believed, much benefit to the creditor and to the system of credit. With respect to the shopkeepers, nothing could be more unwise than the measure proposed by the hon. Gentleman. Every creditor during the next six months would pursue his unhappy debtor to the utmost, the gaols would be crowded, and the amount of misery which would be inflicted would be appalling. The Bill gave the creditor a remedy against the property, and if the debtor gave up all his property, what more could the creditor require? No doubt it was a shorter and more summary process to seize the person and not the goods of the debtor; but it was most unjust, in cases where a debtor had no property, to apply the torture of imprisonment, in order to extort from his relations and friends the means of paying debts which they were not morally or legally called upon to liquidate. The Bill was supported by the Members for the Tower Hamlets, Finsbury, and Lambeth, and the constituencies of those places were shopkeepers and generally creditors, not debtors. The measure had been well considered, and had received the highest legal support. It was approved of by the Lord Chancellor and three ex-Chancellors, by Mr. Justice Wightman, by the Chief Baron, by the Law Officers of the Crown. All the authorities were in favour of it. The case of Scotland, too, was a case in point. There the power of imprisonment for small debts had been abolished, and although that measure had been opposed by the same arguments as this measure was now opposed, yet it was now admitted that the change had worked well in Scotland, so that they had authority and experience in favour of this measure. He was persuaded that in exercising greater caution in respect of giving credit, the retail shopkeepers would conduct their business on a safer and better system, and the poorer classes would be benefitted by being freed from the system of extortion practised on themselves, their relatives and friends by the system of imprisonment. He therefore pressed upon the House the necessity of rejecting the Motion.

Mr. Newdegate

thought it would not operate favourably on the morals of the poorer classes that they should be permitted to evade the guarantee of their liberty which they had given to enable them to procure the means of subsistence. He should vote with the hon. Member for Birmingham.

Mr. Brotherton

could not bring his mind to the conclusion that it would be wise to adopt the Motion of the hon. Member for Birmingham. The arguments of the hon. Member were against the principle of the measure, and not in favour of delay, and the House was almost unanimous in its approval of the principle.

Mr. Hawes

said, the hon. Member for Surrey had given some, accounts respecting the Courts of Requests in Surrey, and the number of cases brought under the consideration of that court. The hon. Member, however, said nothing about the costs which were incurred in court, and which were, he understood, enormous. He contended that the present system of imprisonment was not beneficial to the creditor, on the contrary, it was greatly to his disadvantage. That system was only calculated to feed revenge in relentless creditors, without producing any beneficial result. Under these circumstances he could not support the Motion of the hon. Member for Birmingham.

Mr. Hardy

could not see why imprisonment for debts under 20l. should be abolished, any more than for debts amounting to 40l. or 50l. He should support the Motion of the hon. Member for Birmingham, believing that delay was necessary, in order that small shopkeepers might make themselves acquainted with the provisions of this measure. When a poor man asked for credit, he said, "I have no goods, but, if I do not pay, you can imprison me." It was, therefore, unjust to abolish the present system.

Mr. Wakley

would put it to the hon. Gentleman whether such a system of credit, was founded on a good basis. No, it was not—it was most injurious and demoralizing. The only sound basis for credit for the poor man was good conduct and good character. The hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Humphery) had just told him that a great number of persons were confined for debt in the Compter prison, and the highest debt was 9s. Was not that a disgrace to a country like this? The present system was only calculated to feed revengeful feelings; and if they were to continue it, that House, instead of being called the House of Commons, ought to be called the House of Shylocks. For the sake of the working classes he was quite content to receive this Bill. He believed it would be beneficial to the shopkeepers themselves. The hon. Member would serve his constituents much better by allowing his Motion to be negatived without a division, instead of being left in a small minority. As the House had determined by a large majority that the principle of the Bill should be adopted, he hoped the Bill would come into operation the moment it had received the Royal Assent.

Motion negatived.

Bill passed.

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