HC Deb 26 April 1853 vol 126 cc545-52

said, he rose, pursuant to notice, to move for a Select Committee to consider the expediency of adopting a more uniform system of police in England and Wales. The House was doubtless aware that a different system of police existed in almost every county of England and Wales, regulated according to the will of the magistrates. There was no uniformity whatever in these systems, and it was a very general opinion that a material national benefit, in many respects, would arise from the application of one well-matured common system throughout England and Wales. The House would bear testimony with him to the advantages derived by the metropolis from the system of police introduced by the late Sir Robert Peel, in 1829, though that system was met with great hostility on its first introduction. Had a similar system existed in Blackburn, the late disgraceful riots in that borough could not have taken place. It was therefore desirable to have a good police force in the boroughs sufficient to preserve the peace without the aid of the military force, which was objectionable on various grounds in such cases. When the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) moved the Rural Police Bill, he urged many reasons to that effect; and, among others, quoted the observation of the commanding officer of a large district, who considered it inadvisable to employ the military on such occasions. Another reason was, that, while the soldiers acted under orders, the police could go among the mob, and possibly dissuade them from violence. In 1839 a Commission was issued to consider the best means of establishing a constabulary force throughout England and Wales. The result of the Commission was the Bill of 1839–40, called the Rural Police Bill. That Bill had been fully adopted in twenty-five counties, partially adopted in five, and not adopted in twenty-two counties. Several Bills had been introduced since the Bill of 1840, which had for their object to carry out still further the powers of the Rural Police Bill, and to establish paid constables wherever there was any necessity for the establishment of a police force. He objected to the mixed system of constabulary, which had failed wherever it had been tried. The evidence before the House showed that parish constables were unfit for the duties of police, and in consequence of their local connexions they were particularly unqualified to control public-houses and beershops. In many of the rural districts where great loss of property had taken place, the offenders were very rarely brought to justice; and, about ten years ago, a man just before his execution at Maidstone, made a confession, in which he disclosed the fact, that, within three years, upwards of seventy robberies had taken place, and that none of the guilty parties had been arrested. Another great objection to the mixed system of police, was, that the judicial functions of the magistrates were mixed up with the direction and control of the police force. The Report of the Committee of 1839 stated, that the more fully the separation of the judicial and executive functions of the magistrates were considered, the more clearly did they appear to be incompatible; and one of the witnesses said, "My decided opinion is, that the judicial functions of magistrates should be kept wholly distinct from the control and direction of the police force." With respect to vagrancy, it was most desirable that there should be competent persons to determine who were deserving of relief, and who were not, and this question ought not to be any longer left in its present most unsatisfactory state. The Bill of 1839 had now been fairly on trial for thirteen years, and in those counties in which it had not been adopted, the principal objection to it was the amount of the expense. Now, he had in his possession many documents which would show that the police might, in a great number of cases, be made the means of saving ex- penditure—such, for instance, as the inspection of weights and measures, and the conveyance of prisoners. He believed that a strong feeling existed throughout the country in favour of a well-considered measure of national police—a system which would afford proper facilities for the detection and apprehension of offenders, particularly since the establishment of railroads. It was true that railroads afforded prisoners great facilities for escape; but it was equally true that the message by the electric telegraph, by which their escape might be arrested, travelled immeasurably faster. But such means of securing offenders were perfectly useless if the link of the chain was broken, and that was the case in every county which had not established the rural police. He thought the time had now come for putting an end to the present disjointed system, and establishing one with unity of design. Legislation on this subject was required; but, in his opinion, it ought to be undertaken at the discretion and on the responsibility of the Government of the country. All he now asked for was a fair inquiry as to the working of the present system, and he trusted the House would assent to the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the subject.


said, that in seconding the Motion, the consideration which chiefly influenced him in doing so was the importance of establishing throughout the country a force of police sufficiently effective to supersede the necessity of invoking the interference of the military in domestic matters. He had always been of opinion that one of the great evils of maintaining a large military establishment in this country was, that it afforded to the magistrates temptations and facilities of calling out soldiers for the repression of disturbances. This was a most objectionable proceeding, and could only be obviated by having in every county a civil establishment which would be efficient for the preservation of the peace throughout the year. He was for establishing in every county a general and continuous system of police. At present there were in England no fewer than twenty-two counties, and six or seven in Wales, which had no police establishments whatever; and the injustice of the system was, that the counties which supported the police had in a great degree to pay for the counties which refused to do so. The amount of this injustice, regarded as a mere monetary wrong, might be estimated when it was stated that no less a sum than 190,000l. was paid for the maintenance of the police annually in England and Wales. In some of the counties, as, for instance, in the county with which he was more especially connected—Norfolk, the police were useful and efficient, and had completely succeeded in putting down vagrancy.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the expediency of adopting a more uniform system of Police in England and Wales.


said, he was decidedly favourable to the establishment of a regular and uniform system of police throughout the country—a system which would embrace towns as well as counties. The great evil of the present system, and the great difficulty in the way of establishing a better, arose from variety of jurisdictions, which existed all over the country. Having had great experience in a county in which the rural police had been established, he much approved of the system. In his opinion it was a most difficult matter for the magistrates to manage an irregular and unpaid constabulary.


said, he cordially approved of the Motion, and was fully sensible of the necessity of establishing a better state of things with respect to police than that which at present prevailed. The question was of much greater importance than might appear at first sight. The police had saved an enormous amount of property and life, and enabled persons to sleep in peace. He fully concurred with the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Hume) in the opinion that the interference of the military in domestic matters was greatly to be deprecated, and he hoped the day was not distant when there would be a civil establishment of sufficient strength and efficiency to preserve the public peace. He agreed with the noble Lord the Member for Northumberland (Lord Lovaine) in thinking that the cause of much of the evil and mischief of the present system was to be looked for in the multitude of conflicting jurisdictions. There were no fewer than forty counties in England and Wales, all of which claimed different jurisdictions, and very many counties had no police at all worthy of the name—simply a head constable, with a few men under him. The great thing to be accomplished was uniformity of action—an object which was to be achieved by a compulsory enactment, and not by an optional one, such as the present. There were large towns and small municipalities which had distinct police of their own, and were averse to fraternise with the police of other places. The metropolitan police was an excellent force, and so, too, was the police of the City of London, and yet on the melancholy occasion of the Duke of Wellington's funeral not a little difficulty and anxiety was occasioned to the Government by the rival pretensions of these two bodies. He was for establishing an uniform system; but he was also in favour of preserving as much independence of action as possible in the different localities, so that the ratepayers might nowhere be charged for the maintenance of a larger force than they actually required. The constabulary of Ireland were the most perfect force of the kind in the Empire—perhaps in the world. He did not want an armed police, such as they were, for England, but he thought it desirable that the police should everywhere be trained to the use of arms, in the same manner as the Irish constabulary were.


said, he thought that the question was one which fell within the legitimate province of the Government, and should be left to their discretion rather than to that of independent Members. If the Government were not prepared to undertake it, he should certainly give his voice in favour of the appointment of a Committee, but he should much prefer that the Government should take the question into their own hands. Nothing could be more unsatisfactory than the state of the police in England, as well in towns as in counties. Some of the larger towns had, at a great expense, organised an admirable police, but there were others of them whose arrangements in this respect were wretched beyond description. Many of the counties had larger public establishments than they required, while others, influenced by mistaken considerations of economy—and these amounted to, perhaps, one-half the counties of England—had no police whatever. The defect and mischiefs of this system arose from the fact that the question was regarded simply as one of money. It was remarkable that, the better and more effective were the police, the less disposed were the people in country places to pay for them. It was a common thing for a ratepayer to object to the expense of the police on the ground that he could never see a policeman, forgetting that it was at night that that official was on duty, and that he was taking care of the ratepayer while the latter was sleeping. Another great evil was the inconvenience arising from the want of union between county police and town. Indeed, so notorious were these evils, that it scarcely needed a Committee to find them out, and the Government might, if it would, at once undertake the management of the question without waiting the appointment of a Committee. Still he would vote for the Committee, if necessary, but he should much prefer to learn that the Government were prepared to take the question into their own hands.


said, that this undoubtedly was a matter which fell within the legitimate range of the Government's duty, and one in respect of which they would be prepared to take an active and decisive part. At the same time, he could not but think that, with a view to collecting information as to the advantages which had resulted to some counties from having police, and as to the evils and inconveniences which others had endured from the want of such an establishment, the Committee moved for by his hon. Friend the Member for Dovor (Mr. Rice) would be extremely useful, and would prepare the way for beneficial legislation. He entirely agreed with his hon. Friend as to the superior quality of the county police as compared with those purely local constables which were in some places preferred to them; and he was persuaded that those counties which were deterred by motives of economy from establishing a well-disciplined and effective police, had taken a most erroneous view of their own peculiar interests. He had the strongest conviction that one of the results of the labours of the Committee would be to show that the counties which pursued such a course lost much more by reason of depredations of property, and all the expenses consequent on the multiplication of crime, than would have sufficed to have established an efficient system of police. He had no doubt that much inconvenience, and not a little injury to the public, resulted from the jealousies of small municipalities, which did not like to surrender their small prerogatives, and feared that their dignity might be compromised if they were to make common cause with the counties. From these unfounded jealousies much evil had followed, and the Committee no doubt would feel the matter to be of sufficient importance to merit their attentive consideration. Let the result of the proposed inquiry be what it might, he was of opinion that his hon. Friend the Member for Dovor had materially assisted the Government, by laying a substantial foundation on which to raise a superstructure, sound and useful, and he should certainly support the Motion. Notwithstanding that, he could assure the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir J. Pakington, that he had not the least intention of shirking any of the duties which properly belonged to the office which he (Viscount Palmerston) had the honour to hold.


said, he was not averse to inquiry, but he hoped that the inquiry would be full, fair, and searching, and that both sides of the question would be considered. He could not give his adhesion to the opinion that a police station was required for every hill and valley of this country. He had sufficient faith in the rural population of England to believe that the parochial constable system, if remodelled and improved, would be found thoroughly effective for the preservation of order. It was a mistake to suppose that crime abounded least where policemen were most plentiful. In his county, Somerset, there was no rural police; in the adjoining county, Wiltshire, there was such a force, but there was much less crime in Somersetshire than in Wiltshire. He was for educating the people rather than coercing them. In all towns, however small their population, he would have a regular police; but the same necessity did not exist in counties. The chief qualification for a regular policeman was stature, whereas the parish constable must be of excellent character, and must possess a qualification. This was one advantage out of many in favour of the old system, which, however, he admitted, required to be improved. As the Government assented to the inquiry, he hoped that it would be carried on fairly, that the whole question would be well sifted, and that due regard would be paid to the different circumstances of the urban and the rural districts.


said, that, though favourable to inquiry, and prepared, if necessary, to vote for the Motion, he had no desire to see established throughout the country a general system of police, with their head-quarters in London, and subject to the control of the Home Office. He should like to see an efficient and uniform system of rural police, and did not apprehend that the expense of such a force would be at all as great as was occasionally supposed. Nothing like one policeman to 1,000 inhabitants would be required to maintain order and provide against depredation. In the county of Hertford, where there was a population of 130,000 souls, not more than seventy policemen were employed; and the amount of crime was only one-third of what it was thirty years ago, when the force was first established. The police rate in Hertfordshire did not exceed 2d. in the pound, whereas, in the neighbouring metropolitan districts, where it was 8d. in the pound, it was a source of bitter complaint that there was not the same safety for person and property. Much had been said in eulogy of the metropolitan police force, and they had been described as the most popular police in the world. The fact might be so for anything he knew to the contrary; but it was not saying much in their praise after all, for the police of most of the continental countries were objects of popular execration, because of that system of oppression and espionage of which they were the heartless instruments. There were armed policemen now going about the town, who occasionally made violent and shameful use of their weapons. A case had been brought under his own knowledge in which three policemen had drawn their sabres upon a man, and had wounded him in several places, and had broken his arm. They then had the hardihood to charge the man with having assaulted them; but upon inquiry, it was found that they had perjured themselves in the account they had given of the affray, and the Commissioners of Police had discharged them from the force. This punishment, however, was altogether inadequate to the gravity of the offence, and contrasted in prominent relief with the sentence of transportation for ten years which had been passed upon a man who had knocked down a policeman with a life-preserver. He supported the Motion, as he believed that an inquiry into the metropolitan police system was urgently called for.


said, he would beg to move, as an Amendment, that the inquiry should be extended to Scotland, where the police system was extremely defective.

Amendment proposed, "At the end of the Question, to add the words 'and Scotland.'"

Question, "That those words be there added," put, and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.