HC Deb 19 June 1872 vol 211 cc1977-83

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, alluded to the present condition of the subject with which the Bill proposed to deal. During the year 1870, he said, there were between 900,000 and 1,000,000 actions for small debts under £50, nearly 600,000 being for debts not exceeding 40s. These actions resulted in 160,000 executions and the imprisonment of 6,700 people. During the year ending last September there were 602 prisoners for debt in Stafford Gaol, whose maintenance cost the country £370, and for whose conveyance to gaol the Consolidated Fund was charged £361 4s. The total amount of the debt in 100 cases was £47 18s. 4d., so that the county might have saved 5s. for each prisoner by paying the debts before the summonses were issued, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer £35 at least, and perhaps £82 10s. The Judge of the Derby County Court was the only one of 60 County Court Judges who concurred in the necessity of abolishing imprisonment for debt. But that gentleman had assured him that it cost him much misery to send these poor people to gaol, when they had no idea of the obligations they had incurred. Not only that, but the maintenance in prison of persons on account of small debts was, in a majority of cases, greater than the total amount of their debts, while their families were thrown on the Union for support. In cases which had been brought under his notice, one man had been imprisoned 14 days for 1s. 10d., another 10 days for 2s. 11d., another 30 days for 16s., and another 40 days for 11s. 1d. But a man who had been imprisoned for 40 days might be sent back to prison again two days after his liberation for another period of 40 days, so that this power of imprisonment was virtually without limitation. Moreover, the present system was not alone costly, but it was highly injurious, because not one in 50 of those persons who were imprisoned ever recovered the position they had lost. There was a number of cases of imprisonment for debts of 1s., and in April last a man between 70 and 80 years of age, who was a cripple, was imprisoned for a debt of 8s., next for 12s., and a third time for 9s.; while an unfortunate sweep of Tunbridge Wells, 70 years old, a pauper, who owed 2s. 6d., had been actually taken out of the Union workhouse and sent to Maidstone Gaol under one of these orders of imprisonment. The expense to the county in such a case could not have been less than 30s.; what it cost the Chancellor of the Exchequer he would not say; but, at all events, it could not be regarded as anything else than a serious waste of public money. The House was aware that there was no imprisonment for debt from the Superior Courts; and therefore they could come to no other conclusion than that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. ["Oh!"] That very morning he had an interview with the Lord Chancellor, who had been good enough to inform him that there was no imprisonment from the Superior Courts, except where the matter bore the character of a crime. Did his hon. Friend who said "Oh!" just now mean that poor people who were sent to gaol were criminals? Why, he could prove before a Select committee that many of the men who were sent to gaol did not even know why they were sent there. Well, then, if it were right and good to abolish imprisonment for debt for sums over £50, why not for sums under £50? He was convinced that there was no system of a more vicious character than that of imprisonment for small debts. A publican could not recover for debt, and the existing arrangement tended to encourage drunkenness, because as a man could not get credit at the public-house he spent all his ready money there, while the baker who gave trust had to send the man to gaol, sell up his goods, and ruin his family. He was intimately acquainted with Mr. Daniel, County Court Judge of Burnley, in Lancashire. Mr. Daniel, being dissatisfied with the punishment he had hitherto imposed, had announced that in future when a case for imprisonment was made out he should commit for 40 days. As a reason for adopting that course the County Court Judge stated that he had ascertained from the Under Sheriffs in Yorkshire and Lancashire that many debtors went to prison at Lancaster or York at the expense of the Consolidated Fund, merely for the purpose of amusing themselves. Their practice was, after they had cost the county perhaps 30s., to pay the small debt for which they had been arrested, and on being liberated they spent the rest of the day in visiting the Minster and other places in the city. But if foolish people acted in this manner it could not be tolerated that their conduct should be made an excuse for trifling with the liberty of the subject. He had conversed with half the Judges of the Superior Courts on this subject, and he had not met with one who was not decidedly opposed to the present system of leaving the exercise of this power of imprisonment for an unlimited time to the discretion—or, as he said, the indiscretion—of County Court Judges. It was said that the people who were sent to gaol for debt were "good for nothing," and not what they ought to be; but he found that a vast number of actions for small debts were for amounts owing on account of Bibles; and he thought people who bought Bibles were not likely to be of such a character as to deserve imprisonment. He thought, on the contrary, that the County Courts were kept up at a cost of £500,000 a-year for the purpose of collecting the debts of Scotch tallymen, and he had received a letter from a friend of his stating that the system was a curse, and that an Act was required to mitigate the evil of imprisonment for debt. He had been waited on by a deputation from the Linendrapers Mutual Protection Society in opposition to the Bill; but they acknowledged in the course of the conversation that in Scotland, where some of them came from, they could not imprison for debt under £100 Scots, and that not the county, nor the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but the creditors themselves paid the expense of maintaining in prison the person whom they imprisoned. For that reason it was very obvious why there were so many Scotch tallymen in England running all over the country. He had received a communication with the farewell address of the gentleman who had, until within the last few days, been at the head of the Exeter County Court, and he said that in the exercise of his somewhat arbitrary power of imprisonment for debt his predecessor had imprisoned 120 men in the course of a year; but he himself had reduced the number to 7. It was said that if the Bill became law, the poor man would have no chance of obtaining credit. That was the very thing he wanted to insure. The labourer at present would have no difficulty in saving a certain moderate sum to enable him to go to market, and if a man went with cash in his hand he might buy at 30 per cent less than if he asked for credit. Between 6,000 and 7,000 men were annually sent to prison and ruined by the existence of this law, and the question was one of such tremendous import that sooner or later the House would have to deal with it.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Bass.)


, in rising to move, as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, that every County Court Judge except one affirmed that if the Bill became law the vitality and efficiency of County Courts would be destroyed, and that from the day of the passing of the Bill County Courts might be as well abrogated altogether. In almost every case the person who was imprisoned could pay the debt. If the hon. Member for Derby had understood the practical working of the matter, and had received correct information about it, he would never have advocated this principle. Was it not a principle of common honesty that a man who had incurred a debt, and had received the benefit of the debt, and had money in his pocket to pay it, should be compelled to do so? Yet what the hon. Gentleman proposed was to take away that power which the County Courts possessed of sending to prison a man who was proved almost to demonstration to be able to pay. He denied altogether the dictum which had been ascribed to the Lord Chancellor by the hon. Member, and would refer him to the 5th section of the Debtors Act of 1869, to show that there was no difference between Superior and Inferior Courts in the matter of the law of imprisonment for debt. He would also draw attention to the very careful way in which the Legislature had guarded that power of imprisonment. It could only be exercised after judgment, provided the Judge was satisfied that the debtor had the means of paying the debt and did not do so; and before the Judge could make an order for the judgment summons the debtor was called upon to show cause why the order should not be made upon him. If he did not appear the Court would not proceed to make an order in his absence, but the employer would be summoned, and called upon to give satisfactory evidence whether the debtor had the means, and persistently refused and neglected to pay. So careful were the County Court Judges that very frequently they made an order for imprisonment, which, however, was "to be suspended for the space of a week;" and in most cases the money was paid before the term of imprisonment arrived. The Bill, moreover, was not supported by working men, because they knew that in the event of sickness their baker and grocer would not give them credit if the security of imprisoning was withdrawn. He held in his hand the concurrent testimony of 59 County Court Judges, who were all opposed to the Bill, and he would instance the opinions of five of them, which were to the effect that there would be no adequate means of enforcing the judgment if the power of imprisoning was abolished.


, in seconding the Amendment, said, the whole subject was discussed thoroughly a few Sessions ago, when our bankruptcy laws were revised. It was an error to speak of the power of arbitrary arrest, which did not exist in respect of 5s. any more than it did for a debt of £50; the procedure was the same in both cases, and in both there must be a judgment, and in default a judgment summons. It ought to have been stated that the 6,700 persons who were imprisoned were but the residue of 137,000 ordered to be imprisoned, the remainder having paid under the pressure put upon them by the order. There were about 20 Acts under which justices could commit in default of the payment of penalties, and why should we exempt from imprisonment those who refused to pay for the necessaries of life? If this Bill passed men would go with impunity past the door of the tradesman who had trusted them, and spend their money at the public-house. The Bill ought to be called one for the promotion of dishonesty and fraud.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Lopes.)


, in supporting the second reading of the Bill, said there was not a single man in prison for a very large debt, but there were men in prison whose original debts did not exceed 5s. The ratepayers, moreover, ought not to be called upon as they were to pay large sums of money to assist certain persons to carry on their business, for he did not admit that the abolition of imprisonment would stop legitimate credit, but only illegitimate credit—credit incurred by a man's wife really without his authority. In short, the present system was a relic of barbarism, and no man ought to be imprisoned for non-payment of a debt, and for that reason he warmly supported the Bill.


said, he could not forget that, when it was proposed to abolish hanging for theft the objections of the Judges and their predictions of evil were stronger than the objections and predictions of County Court Judges on this subject; and, indeed, as a rule, Judges were very reluctant to part with any authority. In this matter the rich and the poor did not practically stand upon the same footing, for you seldom or never heard of a man being sent to prison because he owed £100; and it was a great mistake and a misfortune, when the law was changed, that all classes were not put on the same footing. It was, further, a great injustice to the poor that they were more easily committed for non-payment of a debt than those who owed large sums; and the injustice was aggravated by the fact that the imprisonment might be perpetual.


said, they could not but be obliged to the hon. Member for Derby for the statistics he had brought before them. It was a lamentable thing that so large a proportion of the male population should be committed to prison in a year, and their dependents pauperized; and, indeed, the very fact that men had been in prison was an injury to their future prospects, and it was undoubtedly a hardship that ratepayers should have to support in gaol men who were imprisoned for debt. He did not think that the objections to the Bill, although very serious, were by any means conclusive. As to it tending to stop credit, it would be most beneficial if it stopped credit being given by certain persons who went about the country selling things to the wives of working men; but he did not believe that the Bill would stop legitimate credit. He thought, however, that the subject required further inquiry before they could legislate upon it; besides there were different laws in England, Ireland, and Scotland upon the same subject, and upon a question of this kind legislation ought to be uniform for all parts of the United Kingdom.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 34; Noes 136: Majority 102.

Words added.

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

Bill put off for three months.

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