HC Deb 20 June 1860 vol 159 cc728-33

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving the second reading of this Bill, said that the oaths intended to be abolished were unnecessary. There were a number of ancient statutes which imposed the obligation of an oath upon three professions—those of law, physic, and schoolmasters. They could be traced back to the times of James II, and William and Mary. The oaths imposed on lawyers remained. Physicians and surgeons had emancipated themselves, and with regard to schoolmasters the oaths had become obsolete. The principle of the Bill was, that in all cases where there was no judicial offices, or office of trust, the professional oath ought to be withdrawn, but that where there was such office an oath should still be taken. He did not object to the oath of allegiance; but beyond that, as a general rule, no oath ought to be required. It might be said that in the oath of supremacy persons were asked to swear to an untruth, when they declared that no one had any spiritual jurisdiction or authority in this country. Putting aside the Roman Catholics, the Moravians—a body which had been regarded with great favour since the time of George II.—had a spiritual head at Hernhutt in Germany; and, therefore, no Moravian could truly make that declaration. Lord Campbell, in his Life of Lord Chancellor Harcourt, and Mr. Hallam, in his 2nd vol. of his Constitutional History, adopted the view that it would be more consonant with the dignity of the Crown that the duty of the subject should be testified simply by taking the oath of allegiance. Unnecessary oaths tempted to perjury. Those whose consciences were not sufficiently tender would violate such oaths. As the poet said— These will recant vows made in pain, as violent and void. If the effect of these oaths was to prevent one honest man from entering an honourable profession, it was the duty of the House to relieve him. Believing this to be a reasonable measure, he confidently asked the House to give it a second reading.


said, that the Bill had stood for the second reading about five weeks previously. The House was then very full, and he felt rather surprised when the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Ewart) postponed it for a month, but he naturally came to the conclusion that the hon. Member did not intend to persevere with it. It now, however, appeared that he did propose to go on with it. It was a great inconvenience to hon. Members that the House should sit in the day time on Wednesday, the day on which Her Majesty held her levée, as it was impossible for a Member to attend to his duty there, and at the same time to pay his dutiful respects to Her Majesty. It was the third attempt this Session to break up the settlement effected in 1858; but, looking to the state of the House at that moment, particularly to his own side of it (there were but two Members on the Opposition benches), he would not discuss it then, but would give notice that on going into Committee he would move that the Bill be committed that day six months.


said, the question was simply one of legal reform. The alteration proposed had nothing to do with the settlement of 1858, but was recommended by the benchers of the Temple ten years before, and had been supported by many high legal authorities. He regretted that the hon. Member for Dumfries retained the oath of allegiance in certain cases, but if that were thought desirable it would not, in his opinion, be a serious blot upon the Bill. Those oaths provided no real security, and only tended to degrade that sense of responsibility which persons entering professions or offices of high civil trust would feel if they were left to their own individual convictions. Instead of running any risk of imperilling that sense of moral responsibility by abolishing these restrictions, he hoped they would inaugurate a far better era in our history.


said, of all the odd reasons he had ever heard against discussing a Bill, those advanced by the hon. Member for North Warwick were the oddest. If there was any force in them, they would lead to the conclusion that the House should not sit at all on that day. It was not true that the question had been discussed in 1858. He thought that any one who was in the habit of seeing the oaths taken in batches, term after term, in the Queen's Bench and the Bail Court at Westminster, must desire that the Bill should be passed into law. The manner, too, in which the oaths were taken before the benchers at the Inns of Court when students were called to the bar was most unseemly. He had known an instance of a most able, learned, and conscientious gentleman, and good citizen, who would not go to the bar on account of the oaths which he would be compelled to take. He thought a case had fully been made out for the Bill, and he trusted the House would agree to the second reading. With regard to retaining the oath of allegiance in certain cases, that was a question which could properly be dealt with in Committee.


As I understand that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate) does not intend to oppose the second reading of this Bill, I cannot see that much advantage will be derived from a prolonged discussion on the present stage. With regard to my own vote, which will be in favour of the second reading, I must say that I do not attach any great importance to promissory oaths, such as are dealt with by this Bill, which cannot he made the subject of a prosecution. I do not believe that our constitution reposes for its security upon the oaths of allegiance. I dare say the House will recollect the anecdote of a French statesman who, on being called on to swear to a new constitution somewhere about the beginning of this century, remarked that that was the tenth constitution to which he had sworn in his time. The efficacy of oaths of this description may be judged of from that example. In times of disturbance such oaths are utterly valueless where the constitution does not rest, as the English constitution does, on the affections and convictions of the people. My objection to this Bill, therefore, is that it goes a very little way indeed, and that it only effects an object which, perhaps, is scarcely worth the interference of Parliament. However, I have no other objection to it, and if there are any points which require detailed consideration, the Committee will be the proper period. I trust, therefore, that the House will pass at once the second reading.


The value of an oath or a signature depends, of course, altogether upon the honesty of the person taking or giving it. The right hon. Gentleman has told us the story of a French statesman who had no objection to swear to any number of constitutions, and the parallel to it may be found in the anecdote, well known to all gentlemen who have been at Oxford, of the undergraduate who, when he was told on presenting himself for matriculation "You will have to sign the 39 Articles," replied "Oh, yes; 40 if you like." When you meet with persons who are ready to trifle with oaths and securities of this kind of course they cannot be of much use. I am not going to make any objection to this Bill now, but I am afraid lest in giving my assent to it I may be entrapped into assenting to a much larger measure than it appears to be on the face of it. Where we deal with matters of such importance we have a right to expect that the particular proposition before us has received proper consideration from the Government of the day. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman who has charge of the Bill has given great attention to it, but I hope that on the next stage the Government will be able to tell us that they have laid the matter before their law officers, and that the effect of the Bill will be confined to that which appears on the face of it to be its intention. I object myself to an oath being required on any subject but on one of the most solemn importance; but I should very reluctantly part with the power of requiring any person filling an office of any consequence in this realm to take the oath of allegiance. But, as I read this Bill it is intended to abolish the requirement to take the oath of allegiance as well as the oaths of abjuration and supremacy. I cannot tell what reasons may be offered why all the oaths should not be abolished in reference to the particular offices affected by the Bill, but at any rate we ought to have the opinion of the law officers that the operation of the Bill will not extend beyond the intent which appears on the face of it.


said, that the benchers of the Inner Temple had given no opinion on the subject of these oaths, but his own experience was entirely in favour of their abolition. Nothing could be more shocking than the levity with which they were administered and taken.


said, he agreed in the necessity of requiring from the Government the information desired by his right hon. Friend below him (Mr. S. Estcourt). The difficulty of considering the Bill was increased by the arguments of those who supported it. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State said he objected to all promissory oaths whatever; but he should like to hear from the right hon. Gentleman whether he was of opinion that the army ought no longer to take the oath of allegiance. That was a question of considerable gravity. The hon. Gentleman who had charge of the Bill was in favour of continuing the oaths in the case of all offices of trust, but then the question would arise what were offices of trust? As he understood that the hon. Gentleman intended to introduce considerable amendments into the Bill, he hoped that the Bill would be committed pro formâ, and the amendments introduced in it before the discussions came on, so that there might not be any loss of time in discussing matters which were not really intended to stand in the Bill. As to the anecdote of the Home Secretary about the Frenchman who was so ready to take any number of oaths, he did not think Englishmen were so unscrupulous in general. In a great majority of cases they did attach importance to the oaths, even of a promissory nature, which they took.


explained that what he had said was, that he did not attribute any value to the general administration of the oath of allegiance to the public at large with a view of maintaining the existing constitution. He had made no remark with reference to the administration of the oath to persons holding office under the Crown, or persons in the army, neither of whom were affected by this Bill.


said, he should support the Bill. He thought that the danger which the right hon. Gentleman opposite had pointed out was amply guarded against.

Bill read 2°, and committed for Tomorrow.