HC Deb 15 July 1872 vol 212 cc1130-4

asked the First Lord of the Treasury, Whether, in consequence of recent convictions under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1871, Her Majesty's Government will bring in a Bill this Session to amend and define the Law, or afford facilities for the discussion of a measure having that object. He must beg the indulgence of the House for a few minutes while he took a course he was not in the habit of taking, and made some observations in reference to his Question, concluding with a Motion in order to put himself in Order. ["Oh, oh!"] He knew the inconvenience of that course; but the urgency of the matter to which he was about to allude induced him to adopt it, for the Question he put concerned a matter which interested a large number of persons who were not directly represented in that House. It referred to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of last year. It was a notorious fact that since the passing of that Act there had been more than one conviction under it, which had produced great discontent to the whole class of persons affected and great hardship to individuals. It had also been admitted that those convictions were not founded on a just interpretation of the law, and that differences of opinion existed as to whether it was the fault of the law or of those who misinterpreted it. Early in the present year the Home Secretary was reported to have stated to a body of his constitu- ents that he would be prepared to support any Amendment which tended to remove from the Act the ambiguity of expression which led to conflicting decisions, or to restore the Act to the form it had been promoted by the Government. That statement, proceeding from an individual responsible for the administration of the criminal law was important, and led to the expectation that the subject would be dealt with during the present Session, for to cast a doubt or suspicion on an existing law, without attempting to deal with that law, was a very inconvenient course of proceeding. He was justified in saying that the Act was difficult to interpret, because the last decision under it by a stipendiary magistrate had been admitted by the Home Secretary to be wrong. He had some right, therefore, to appeal to the Government to deal with the subject; and though he could not, without violating Order, allude to a Bill now before Parliament, he, nevertheless, could ask the Government to deal with the matter, or, at all events, allow a discussion upon it. He might be told that the Government had no time to devote to the subject; but the Government had found time for other questions of less importance, such as the Thames Embankment, the Galway Election Inquiry, and the manning of the Navy; and it would be unfortunate if the country should next winter be left under the operation of this Act of Parliament, especially after the manner in which it had been interpreted. It was most essential that in respect to the questions which had arisen between capital and labour, everybody should feel that the law was clear and capable of being understood by those who administered it, and, most of all, by the classes affected by such legislation. It was, therefore, desirable that the Government should give an opportunity for the discussion of the subject, for the people outside that House would be more satisfied with an adverse result than with no discussion at all, and he would venture to suggest that Parliament should not be prorogued until the impression which existed had been removed. He would conclude by moving the adjournment of the House.


rose amid cries of "Order!" to second the Motion, and immediately afterwards resumed his seat, when


then rose, and said that he thought that the extension of the privilege of making speeches on Motions of Adjournment would be very inconvenient, and the practice of speaking upon seconding such Motions would be entirely novel.


said, that he had intended to ask a Question.


said, he would be most happy to answer the Question at another time. His hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Vernon Harcourt) had greatly extended the privilege allowed upon Motions of this kind, for he had a Bill before the House standing for Wednesday next, and he now, without previous Notice, moved the Adjournment of the House, in order to raise a discussion on the question whether the Government would take up the subject themselves, or give some extraordinary facilities for a discussion on it. Now, he must say that if Motions of Adjournment were to be made in relation to Questions standing on the Notice Paper, the House must be prepared for an increase of whatever inconvenience attended the practice of moving Adjournments of the House without Notice. He was aware of the strong and patriotic motive which influenced his hon. and learned Friend; but there were multitudes of hon. Members under the influence of equally strong and patriotic motives, and it was only fair to admit that these Motions of Adjournment were always made under the influence of the strongest and most patriotic motives. Being perfectly aware of the importance and difficulty of the subject referred to by his hon. and learned Friend, he was sorry to say that the Government were not prepared to bring in a Bill that Session for the purpose of amending and defining the Criminal Law Amendment Act, or to set aside other urgent Public Business in order to allow of a discussion upon the subject of that measure. The difficulty of time was not the only difficulty in the way. Although there was much truth in what his hon. and learned Friend had said as to the inconvenience which had arisen from the want of a more perfect agreement as to the purpose and effect of the law, and the character of the sentences and decisions which had been given, it must be recollected that that was by no means the whole case. The attention of the Home Secretary had been called to about a hundred decisions which had been given under the Act, and of these were only three or four to which objection had been taken. His hon. and learned Friend had said that these decisions had not been founded on a just interpretation of the law. If so, it would remain for inquiry how far these questions had been carried to issue by appeals, and what was the result of those appeals. He must remind his hon. and learned Friend that the Government introduced their Bill with a clause against "picketing," which was made more stringent by the House of Lords. On the return of the Bill to the Commons the Government tried to restore the Bill to its original state; but the House overruled the decision of the Government, and maintained the Lords' Amendment. That showed the division of opinion in Parliament on this question; and, as the Act was only passed in 1871, the Government had not the least hope, if they were to introduce a Bill on the subject, that they would, after so limited an experience, be able to induce Parliament to reverse the decision already come to. On that ground he was reluctantly obliged to answer the Question in the negative.


considered that this subject deserved an early discussion. It was notorious that the regulations which decided the course of Business were now such that it was utterly in vain for any unofficial Member to attempt to force a Bill through the House. The Government, as representing the Crown, had the whole initiative of legislation, and Parliament would soon have only a veto. He could not see how private Members could perform their duty without sometimes straining the usual order of proceeding before the regular Business of the day commenced, and he therefore thought the hon. and learned Member for Oxford was quite right in the course he had taken.


was afraid the course pursued by the Government in this matter would lead in winter to a very bitter agitation. There was no doubt that the trade unionists felt very strongly on this subject, and that they would feel exceedingly indignant if no consideration was given to the Bill after so strong a case had been made out on their behalf. He hoped that the Government would, at all events, afford an opportunity for discussion, for he thought that even an adverse decision would tend to remove the impression which existed, as showing that the matter had at least been considered.