HC Deb 19 February 1869 vol 194 cc147-50

said, he would beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether he has seen a statement in the police report, as reported in The Times of the 17th instant, to the following effect:— That at the Southwark Police-court a man named George Roberts, aged sixty-five, was charged on remand with being in the area of a certain house for the purpose of committing a felony that further evidence was given by Richard Kemp, one of the warders at Wandsworth, who said that the prisoner was one of the oldest burglars in England, many years ago he was cast for death, and that sentence was commuted to transportation for life; that he received a ticket of leave, and had since been twice transported for life, and liberated with license; that at the September Sessions of the Central Criminal Court in 1866 witness was present when prisoner was tried for burglary, and sentenced to eighteen months' hard labour, and that he believed that he had since been convicted in the country. Mr. Burcham sentenced him to three months' hard labour for being in inclosed premises for an unlawful purpose. He wished to know whether that state- ment as reported represented the facts accurately; whether, if accurate, those facts were in accordance with, or contrary to, the existing state of the Law; and, whether, in either alternative, the right hon. Gentleman has taken, or proposes to take, any steps to remedy such an anomalous and extraordinary state of things? He craved the indulgence of the House for a few moments while he made a few remarks on a subject affecting all classes of society. If the details referred to in this Question were accurately stated, he could hardly imagine that the Home Office Circular issued by Sir George Grey on the 15th of August, 1864, had in this particular case been complied with in every point. He was quite aware that, in making these remarks, he was trenching on the entire subject of the treatment of our criminal population and their alleged rights. He maintained, however, that the rights of society and of peaceable and orderly men must take precedence of the alleged rights of criminals, whose only trade was violence and robbery, and who were at war with all mankind. If any individual came before a magistrate, and, to use the common phrase, "swore the peace" against any other individual, alleging that he went in fear of him, the person against whom the application was made was bound under surety to keep the peace, not only towards the complainant, but towards all Her Majesty's subjects. Now, if an individual possessed this right as against any other individual, why should society at large be debarred from exercising it collectively against the whole of the criminal class? It might, perhaps, be urged that our prisons were already full to overflowing; but how could it be otherwise while we pursued the present system of transporting none of our criminals, and of hanging very few, who, he was afraid, were in some instances, by no means the worst of them. If we were to turn loose a large number of criminals without an adequate system of supervision, what would become of society? He would not go into the subject more fully at present, because he believed that a Bill was about to be brought forward in reference to it, so that the House would have an opportunity of dealing with the question in a comprehensive and liberal manner. This was a question affecting the whole community, and it ought to be treated without regard to party or political views. He trusted that criminals liberated on ticket of leave would be subjected to supervision, for he could not see that there was any hardship in placing a criminal who had several times offended against the law under the surveillance of the police for the remainder of his life. If the man alluded to in his Question as having been thrice sentenced to transportation for life, had been subjected on Ms liberation with license to the surveillance of the police, he would not have had an opportunity of committing the fresh offences with which he was charged. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would introduce into any measure he might bring forward stringent clauses to repress the criminal population of this country, as the peaceful and well-disposed members of society were entitled to that protection at the hands of the Government.


said, in reply, the very short Notice I received of the hon. Baronet's intention to put his Question prevents me from giving a complete Answer to it. The whole of the case referred to rests solely upon what was said by a warder at Wandsworth, and his statement is so extraordinary that I imagine it will not be found, on inquiry, to have any foundation whatever in truth. The only record at the Home Office, with regard to George Roberts is, that he was convicted of burglary, and sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment. If hon. Gentlemen consider for a moment, they will see it is in the highest degree improbable that a man sentenced to transportation for life should have been liberated three times during the last fifteen years, for it is only since 1853 that the system of granting licenses, commonly called "tickets of leave," has been in operation. It is, indeed, hardly credible that one sentence of death, and three of imprisonment, had been passed upon a man, and that, in the course of fifteen years, he had received three licenses allowing him to return to this country. I know, as a matter of fact, it is very seldom that a free pardon is granted to persons sentenced for life. Such persons, indeed, occasionally obtain conditional licenses, allowing them freedom within the colony, and no doubt the condition of these licenses is sometimes violated, and the criminals holding them escape to this country. But cases of this kind are very rare, and it is extremely improbable that such a thing should have occurred three times in the case of one person. Inquiry has, however, been instituted into the case mentioned in the hon. Baronet's Question, and on a future occasion I shall be able to supply the correct particulars. Meanwhile, I may remark that, since 1864, very stringent rules have been laid down with regard to the issuing of licenses. Speaking generally, the utmost that a convict can get by way of a remission on a ticket of leave is something less than one-fourth of his sentence, and that remission can only be gained when he has shown great industry and general good conduct. Any departure from industry, or good conduct, leads to a diminution of the extent of the license. In cases of sentences for life, the rule is, that they should be separately considered, and it is only in very extraordinary instances indeed that a pardon is given, enabling a man who has been sentenced to transportation or imprisonment for life to be restored again to society. The hon. Baronet does not seem to be aware that a system of police supervision already exists. It is not so complete as is desirable, owing to the movement of criminals from place to place; but it will be part of the proposals, which I hope to have the honour of submitting to the House on Monday, to make that system of supervision more effectual. With regard to the other measures I am about to bring forward with reference to the amendment of the law in respect of criminals, I am sure the House will not expect me now to anticipate what will so soon be formally submitted to its notice.