HC Deb 10 March 1847 vol 90 cc1106-14

moved the Second Reading of the Arrest for Debt (Ireland) Bill, which had for its object that no man be imprisoned for a debt under 20l. His wish was to assimilate the law of Ireland to that of England in this respect. There was no good reason why it should not be so; for Ireland was the poorer country, and, consequently, stood in greater need of the intervention of the Legislature. He had heard no objection urged against the principle of the Bill; it had been published throughout Ireland for upwards of a month, yet there was not a single petition against it. The failure of the potato crop rendered thousands unable to meet their little engagements; and, under the present law, they would be thrown into gaol, or else be compelled to fly from their homes in order to avoid the civil bill process. It became, therefore, the more incumbent on Parliament to interfere at this particular crisis. He did not now ask the House to proceed with the Bill at once, but only to sanction its principle by assenting to its second reading. It might then be committed pro formâ, and referred to a Committee up stairs, who would examine into its details. He would prefer the Government taking charge of the measure; and if the Solicitor General for Ireland would do so he would not urge any claim to its paternity. He had consulted several legal gentlemen in Ireland, who were all in favour of it, as was, indeed, generally speaking, the whole Irish bar, even the law adviser to the Lord Lieutenant. He had already postponed it at the request of the Government, and did not think he should be doing justice to the merits of the measure if he asked for a further postponement. He moved that the Bill be read a second time.


did not deem it consistent with his duty to accede to the second reading of this Bill. The object of the Bill was by one sweeping clause at once to abolish arrestment for debt in Ireland where the amount did not exceed 20l. Now, those who were aware — as many Gentlemen in that House were — of the number of debts contracted in Ireland the amount of which did not exceed 20l., would at once see what an immense change in the law, and of what had hitherto been the rights of creditors, would be effected by a Bill of this description. He did not mean to say that this was not a matter deserving the serious consideration of any body interested in the well-being of the country and the advancement of the people; but certainly it was utterly impossible that the House could accede to a measure of this description unless they meant to give facilities that did not at present exist in Ireland to prevent the payment of debts to bonâ fide creditors. No one entertained a greater sympathy than he did for the man who in an honest spirit contracted a debt which he afterwards had not the means to discharge; but he had no sympathy for the man who dishonestly contracted a debt which he fraudulently and dishonestly withheld from the bonâ fide creditor. He hoped the House would excuse the deficiencies which he himself felt in addressing them on this occasion. It was the first time he had had the honour to address the House. He had been for so short a time a Member of it, and his time had really been so much occupied since he came from Ireland, that he had not been able to give his attention to the safeguards which it would be absolutely necessary to provide before the principles of a Bill of this description could be acceded to. A Bill precisely similar to that now brought forward by his hon. Friend was passed for England in the 7th and 8th of Victoria; but the country felt that this was such an imperfect act of legislation, that next Session very considerable safeguards were introduced for the protection of creditors—safeguards which, unfortunately, could not at present be extended to Ireland. In England there were commissioners of bankrupts all over the country, and local judges, before whom all cases of debt under 20l. came for adjudication, and by the decisions of which the property of the debtor was rendered available for the payment of the debt. But they had no such judges in Ireland—no machinery similar to that of England to carry out a Bill of this kind. He felt bound, therefore, on various grounds, to oppose the Bill. At the same time, he might state that this matter was under his serious consideration. He could not pledge himself at that moment to any particular course; but he had no hesitation in saying, that he would lay before Her Majesty's advisers a measure to be submitted to that House. If the hon. Gentleman, therefore, would leave the matter in his hands, he would, as indeed he was now doing, give it his best consideration, the result of which would be submitted to Her Majesty's Government, and probably adopted by them. If, however, this suggestion were not acceded to by the hon. Gentleman, he must feel it his duty to oppose the second reading of the Bill.


, though generally favourable to the assimilation of the Irish to the English law, must oppose the present Bill, which, owing to the different circumstances of the two countries, would in his opinion operate most injuriously in Ireland. After the statement of the hon. Member, he would not trespass on the patience of the House. However desirable it might be to assimilate the law of arrest in Ireland to the law as it existed in England, he was of opinion that there were faults in the latter which were of great magnitude. He was satisfied to leave the matter in the hands of the learned Solicitor General.


thanked the hon. Baronet the Member for Waterford for bringing in this Bill, of which Ireland at this moment stood greatly in need. He knew that hundreds were confined in the gaols of that country for debts of 5s., 6s., and 7s., whilst their wives and children at home were in a state of starvation, and had not a farthing to pay off the demand. He hoped the Solicitor General would very soon redeem his pledge, and that the Irish law in this respect would undergo a complete revision and alteration.


said, he had put his name to the back of the Bill because he had himself seen in Ireland the most painful and shocking effects of the present law. He believed the object of the hon. Member who brought forward the Bill was, to a certain degree, to limit the jurisdiction of the inferior courts. The law in Ireland was, it could not be denied, as regarded debtor and creditor, in a deplorable condition, and contrasted most unfavourably with our recent legislation for the people of England in this regard. It was impossible for a traveller in Ireland who entered the gaols there not to be struck with the enormous number of poor people who were confined therein for debts so ridiculously small that the release of them was often a piece of amusement. In some cases persons had been imprisoned in the Irish gaols for two or three years for debts not exceeding 10s.; in fact they were kept there to gratify the revenge of the creditors. At present there was what he might justly term an extreme facility of civil bill process. Fictitious suits were, in consequence of this facility, often got up, and persons often got up a Bill against their near relative for diet and lodging, and placed those persons whom they were bound to maintain in the county gaol. The effect of the present system was, that the Irish gaols were crowded with persons whom public opinion in this country would not suffer to be incarcerated for a single hour. He supposed the Bill of his hon. Friend the Member for Waterford would not meet with much support among the lawyers on account of its painful simplicity and brevity. He feared that if the matter was now postponed, the Government would avail themselves of the very valid excuse which they would have, that the pressure of public business would not allow them to bring it forward during the present Session, and so the evil would remain to its full extent.


thought a Bill of this kind imperatively called for in Ireland. There was the greatest degree of persecution inflicted on the poor of Ireland by this power of arrestment. To that power was to be traced the fact that no fewer than 2,000 processes had been issued at Castlebar against poor tenants for sums which they were wholly unable to pay, and which might be used against them for the most oppressive purposes. He hoped the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor General for Ireland would not forget his pledge. He felt the need of some such measure for Ireland, and he therefore considered it to be his duty to urge the subject upon the consideration of the Government.


opposed the Bill, observing that the very announcement of the measure spread alarm among the citizens of Dublin, because while it proposed at one "fell swoop" to abolish imprisonment for debt, it did not provide any substitute for recovering just and bonâ fide debts. Still he was glad the subject had been taken up by Government; and he trusted, after the pledge of the hon. Gentleman the Solicitor General for Ireland, the Bill would be withdrawn.


hoped the Government would pay attention to this subject. The greatest evils resulted from civil bill process for debt. He had received a letter, which he now held in his hand, from a competent authority, in which the writer stated that the assistant barrister for the county of Mayo was almost wholly occupied with these civil bill processes, by which poor cottiers were turned from their farms. [Mr. SHAW: You mean ejectments.] He meant nothing of the kind. He knew the difference very well, and he now held in his hand three of those self-same civil bill processes. The writer stated, that at Ballina and that neighbourhood the landlords were resorting to the civil bill process in order to clear their estates; for the poor wretched peasant who had, owing to the destruction of his potato crop, no means of paying his debts, flew from his home sooner than be thrown into prison and separated from his wife and children; and in this way the landlord obtained possession, and his object was achieved. This system was in that part of the country to a great extent successful. At the quarter-sessions in Ballina, on the 11th of January, between 1,500 and 2,000 of those civil bill processes were tried, and that number actually proceeded to entry and decree. But there was a far larger number in which the parties did not appear at all, but the same effect was produced, and the same object gained, the clearance of the lands. The usual process was for landlords to distrain for their rents; but this did not take place until after the rent was due for some months. But in the cases he had mentioned, some of the Mayo landlords, by making use of the civil bill process, or threatening arrests for the debt, succeeded much better, more speedily, and effectually in clearing the land, than if the ejectments were resorted to. He was assured that the prisons there were almost full of a starving peasantry, whilst their families and children were also starving outside the walls, and thousands upon thousands were obliged to emigrate from their native place and wander to the quays of Drogheda or Belfast, whence they soon found their way to Liverpool, Bristol, or some other English port. He had received a letter from the Rev. Mr. Neary, the parish priest of Tyrawley, in the county of Mayo, which stated that there were in that parish, in September last, 1,000 families; but at the present moment, owing to the above mode which the landlords of that county resorted to for the purpose of getting rid of the surplus population, there were not more than 500. The rev. gentleman further stated, that not more than thirty families in that parish possessed the means of maintaining themselves; and that he verily believed, if the landlords were allowed to go on, before August next, there would not be two hundred souls there. The poor people so ejected formed a large number of those employed upon the public works; and it behaved the people of England to see that the public money was not spent in ministering to the inhumanity of such landlords, and to put an end to a system by which this country was inundated with Irish labourers, at a time when the English ratepayers were so heavily burdened for the support of their own poor. He called emphatically upon the Government, and upon the people of England to look to this. He understood further, that when the poor occupants refused to quit their wretched houses, the landlords, who were members of the relief committees, refused to allow them to be employed upon public works; so that they had no alternative but to quit the country, and fly, thus increasing the burdens of pauperism, and thus doubly taxing the English taxpayer. He would say only, in addition, that he gave his cordial assent to the Bill.


thought the hon. Member for Waterford would act wisely in leaving this matter in the hands of the Government. His object in rising was to suggest to the Government whether, considering the existing circumstances of the country, some temporary measure might not be introduced with a view of enabling the assistant barristers, upon cause shown, to stay the execution of processes in such cases as those stated by the hon. Member for Stroud, and where parties subject to process were not endeavouring to evade debt, but were bonâ fide unable to pay.


thought this a very good suggestion. Another suggestion he would make was, that provision should be made for the support by the plaintiff of parties against whom execution was taken out personally. With regard to the statement brought forward by the hon. Member for Stroud respecting Mayo, he did not consider that 1,500 or 2,000 processes was so unusual a thing; it might be unusual in Mayo, but it was not unusual in other places. It was not to be supposed that these were all for rent; they included every other species of debt, and the courts discountenanced the civil bill processes as a means of recovering rent. He believed that the reason why there were more arrests for debt in Mayo now, than upon other occasions, arose from the effects produced by the Act of last Session.


hoped the hon. Baronet would consent to withdraw his Bill, and leave the matter in the hands of the Government, who would give their best consideration to the subject. If the hon. Member declined to accede to his request, he should have no alternative, but be obliged to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.


likewise hoped that the hon. Baronet would not press the question to a division. At the same time, he must say he thought the principle of the Bill must be extended to Ireland. There was no reason why the same law affecting arrest for debt should not apply to Ireland as existed in England and Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman the Recorder for Dublin had said that the alteration of the law of arrest for debt in England had not worked well. He believed the reason why the alteration had in the first instance operated prejudicially to the creditors, was, because there were not then local tribunals for working it; since then, the right hon. Gentleman would find that it had operated well.


was quite willing that the same principle as to arrest for debt should be adopted in Ireland as in England; and he did not think that the people of Ireland were averse to that principle. But as to the mode of carrying that principle into effect, he preferred leaving it in the hands of the Solicitor General for Ireland; and he trusted that the hon. Baronet would withdraw his Bill. The hon. Baronet the Member for Londonderry (Sir R. Ferguson) had so well answered the statement made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. P. Scrope), that he should not trespass further upon the House with reference to that matter. It would seem that nothing could be done for Ireland, but by the landlords of Ireland. Now, the Bill for facilitating the sale of estates in Ireland, would bring such estates into the market, some in the most disturbed and unimproved and barren parts of Ireland; and he did hope to see the hon. Member for Stroud become the purchaser of one of those estates, and take up his abode there, and perform the duties of an Irish landlord. He could assure the hon. Member that he would meet with a hearty welcome and ready co-operation in all his attempts to carry his plans into execution. But he warned him that he would meet with difficulties which he did not foresee, and obstacles which it would require all his nerve and energy to overcome. Still, if he assumed the position of an Irish landlord, he would receive his reward; and if he returned to this country, he would return a wiser and a better man.


thought it would be exceedingly imprudent to divide the House on the question; but before he withdrew the Bill, he wished to ask whether it were the intention of Her Majesty's Government to bring in any Bill this Session on the subject?


had not had the advantage of hearing the debate; but with regard to the question of the hon. Baronet, he could state that the Irish Government were extremely anxious and desirous to bring forward a measure on the subject referred to; at the same time, he hoped he should be excused for exercising caution in giving any positive pledges for the Session. There were a great many measures relative to Ireland already before the House, and other measures contemplated; therefore he hoped he should not be expected to give any positive pledge on the point. The Solicitor General for Ireland would consider the subject; and he hoped that during the present Session, the Government would be able to carry into effect a measure that would prove satisfactory.


Will the right hon. Gentleman object to a Committee up stairs on the Bill?


did not think that would answer the purpose, and that the Bill had far better be left in the hands of the Solicitor General for Ireland.

Bill withdrawn.

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