HC Deb 03 March 1864 vol 173 cc1388-92

Sir, I wish to call the attention of the House to a Report which has been made to the Home Secretary, and I wish to ask a question of the right hon. Gentleman respecting that Report. It will be in the recollection of every one that, within the last few days, a remarkable trial has taken place in France, which furnished us with a notion of what the police system is there; and, thereupon, the most influential journal of England, and probably of the world, published a strong article upon the effect of the spy system in France. At that trial it was seen that the spy system was employed to track men who were denounced as conspiring to commit a great crime, and the spy system was put into operation to prevent that crime and to bring those who contemplated it to justice. The article in The Times newspaper spoke of that system in terms of reprobation, and it stated that certainly the people of England would not bear such a system among them. I am very much afraid that the people of England not only may, but actually do bear the existence of a spy system of which they have but little idea. I take it that if a spy system were established in the country, in places where the population is comparatively thinly scattered, all hopes of privacy would be at an end, and the pleasures of private life would be poisoned, embittered, and almost destroyed. It happens that we have established police all over England, and in London there are, as I learn from the Inspectors' Report, societies organized for the purpose of supplying information to inquisitive persons. The pretence is that of defending credit and preventing crime; but the result is, that the habit of inquisitiveness is propagated, and a desire for tittle-tattle is very much fostered. Everybody wishes to know everything about everybody else, and what "Mrs. Grundy" may say is an important question in every family. But, as we know that in France the steps of men were dogged from hour to hour, by night and by day—that men could not go out or return home, could not dine or go to bed, without the police knowing it—so in the present circumstances of England private life in the same way may be watched, and we shall be unable to stir without somebody following to report our actions. In order to make the House understand what I mean I will read a few lines from the Reports of the Inspectors of Constabulary in England, ordered to be printed on February 9th last. In his report, General Cartwright, the Inspector of Police in the Eastern Counties, Midland, and North Wales district, makes this statement—

"During my inspection in the county of Lincoln, Captain Bicknell, the Chief Constable for that large and important county, brought under my notice a system which he had discovered of private communication between individuals or societies and members of the force, which I cannot better explain than by entering the letter addressed from Captain Bicknell to the county paper upon the subject—

"'To the Editor of the Mercury,

"'Chief Constable's Office, Lincoln,

August 12th, 1863.

'"Sir,—The police of this county are constantly receiving letters from private inquiry offices, seeking information as to the character, respectability, and money value of persons residing in the towns and villages, generally of small traders, but sometimes of clergy and professional men. Companies are formed for the professed object of conducting these inquiries, and the practice is becoming very prevalent. I think most persons are little aware of the system of spying that is going on, and that "strictly confidential" communications may be passing concerning them which may be of serious injury to their prospects, and that their names may be inscribed at the offices in the "register of persons deemed unworthy of credit." The police of the counties and boroughs are largely applied to by these offices, and it is within my knowledge that, in some instances, the information sought has been furnished, and remuneration received. Such matters, unless on criminal information, are, I conceive, beyond the province of the police; and it is to make known that I have prohibited any replies to such inquiries on the part of the constabulary of this county, and also to draw the attention of the police authorities generally to the subject, that I request the insertion of this letter in your widely circulated paper. I enclose you a specimen letter of inquiry, but not for publication. I am, &c.,


Chief Constable of Lincolnshire."'

Upon this General Cartwright makes some observations, which I will read to the House— Considering this is a most important communication, I have made a point of inquiring whether this system has been generally in force, and I have to report, that in many counties and boroughs I find it to be of common practice. Feeling deeply how injurious such a system must be to the wellbeing of the force, I cannot too strongly impress upon you my firm belief that, unless it is at once suppressed, the support the force receives from the public will be greatly damaged, if not entirely withdrawn. According to the title of the Act, under which the force is established, it is stated to be for the more effectual prevention and detection of crime, suppression of vagrancy, and maintenance of good order. The duties here are so well defined that it must be clear to every one that any strictly confidential inquiries into private means and character between individuals or societies and police officers, is one of the most dangerous transgressions of duty that can be imagined. The efficiency of the force depends upon its popularity, which, if removed, is fatal to its main support; as, according to its efficiency, it becomes popular, so according to its popularity it becomes efficient. In my circuit of inspection, wherever I have mentioned this subject to any of those in command of forces it has met with their immediate reprobation. This course of action may check the system referred to, but I consider it of such vital importance to the force, that I have thought it my duty to bring it under your immediate consideration. The chief consideration which presents itself to General Cartwright is very properly the efficiency of the police force; but it is right that this House should consider the welfare of the community. What I wish, therefore, to ask the right hon. Gentleman is, Whether his attention has been called to this very important communication; whether he has come to any resolution respecting the course pursued by the police in these cases; and whether he has issued any orders thereupon?


No doubt the practice to which General Cartwright has called the attention of the Secretary of State, is a most objectionable one, and the employment of the police in certain parts of the country, not under the authority of their officers, but by private communications with private parties, in making these inquiries, is altogether foreign to the object for which the police force was established. As soon as my attention was called to this passage in General Cartwright's Report, I directed a circular to be addressed to the Chairmen of Quarter Sessions in counties, and to the Chairmen of Watch Committees in boroughs possessing a separate police force, and to the police authorities in Scotland. This is the form addressed to the Chairmen of Watch Committees—

"Whitehall, Feb. 3.

"Sir,—I am directed by Secretary Sir George Grey to request that you will call the attention of the Watch Committee to the inclosed extract from the last Report of Lieutenant General Cart-wright, one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Constabulary, respecting a system of private communication which appears to be in operation between individuals or societies and members of the constabulary force; and I am to request that inquiries may be made upon this subject with reference to the police of your borough, and that special instructions may be given to prevent a practice which is open to very serious objection. I am, Sir, your obedient servant,


"The Chairman of the Watch Committee."

I have received a great many letters in answer to this circular, and, although some replies are still wanting, I am happy to say that the general result shows that the practice does not exist except in only a very few instances; and, attention having been called to the subject, I hope the notice taken of it by General Cartwright, and the steps adopted in consequence, will effectually prevent the continuance of the practice.