HC Deb 05 May 1879 vol 245 cc1775-8

Order for Committee read.


thought that any hon. Member who had studied the Game Law Statutes would not be surprised that the Government were about to mitigate their severity; their only cause for wonder, however, was that such mitigation was confined to Scotland. He believed there prevailed in the House a sort of general impression, on the part of hon. Members who knew not precisely what the Statutes contained, that the Game Laws were about as reasonable and moderate a Code as might be imagined. He would, however, read the penalties imposed by the two Acts with which the Government proposed to deal. The Act of the 9 Geo. IV., c. 69, among other penalties, decreed that when three or more men went out armed at night for the purpose of poaching, this offence was a misdemeanour, and rendered them liable to 17 years' penal servitude. For night poaching (simply) the third offence was a misdemeanour, and punishable with seven years' penal servitude. The Act, known as Lord Stradbroke's, passed in 1844–7 & 8, Vict., c. 29—extended these penalties to anyone who should commit the offence, so called, on the high roads, or, in fact, in any public place. In fact, there were not in the civilized world laws of such severity—he might say atrocity—relating to game as these were. Now, considering that Blackstone laid it down as indisputable, that the wild denizens of the field, marsh, and forest, known to lawyers under the name of feræ natures, are the common property of men, he their degree what it may, the gross injustice of such laws became more manifest. It amounted, in fact, to a statutory confiscation of the property of the common law rights of the people, who were then punished with such savage severity for taking that which should belong to them. In France and Germany their Game Laws were formerly as bad, or worse; but they had been modified, and this country alone retained these severe and atrocious laws. No wonder that Blackstone went on to say they were the last and most odious remembrancers of feudal institutions, and calculated to import the savage tyranny of William Rufus and King John into the mild and civilized era of the Hanoverian Georges. But why, he asked, were the Game Laws to be mitigated in Scotland alone? It appeared that a farmer had been there recently sentenced to imprisonment for snaring rabbits at night, and that had given rise to the present measure for the mitigation of the law with respect to that part of the country. But was there no need of mitigation in England? He would give the House two illustrations. At the Oxford Quarter Sessions a labourer was charged with night poaching who had been twice convicted under the Act; in neither instance did he resist apprehension; and the Court, having taken this circumstance into account, gave him 12 months' hard labour instead of a long term of penal servitude, and, of course, he had to find security against a repetition of the offence. The second case had occurred at the Gloucester Assizes, where Mr. Justice Lindley sentenced a man named William Turner to six months' imprisonment with hard labour, Henry Weston to 12 months' hard labour, and William Spires to seven years' penal servitude for night poaching. They had taken one piebald pheasant. They were undefended. He (Mr. P. A. Taylor) had received dozens of letters referring to similar cases, but had always made it a rule to decline to bring them before the House, replying, at the same time, that while such was the state of the law it was not for him to complain of the action of those who had to administer it, and that endeavours must be made to change the law itself. There was nothing new in the modification proposed by the Government; on the contrary, two Committees had already reported in favour of an alteration, one in 1846, and the other in 1872. The Committee which sat in 1846 said in their Report— Resolved, that, in the opinion of this Committee, no person convicted of night poaching under s. 1, 9 Geo. IV., c. 69, whose offence is unattended by circumstances of aggravation, should be subjected to the punishment of transportation; and again— Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Committee that no person convicted of night poaching, under the 1st s. 9 Geo. IV., c. 68, should be required to find sureties for not repeating such offence. Again, in 1872, a similar recommendation was given by a Committee, that where offenders were not armed and more than two in number, discretion should be given to the Court to inflict a fine instead of imprisonment, and that the convicted person should no longer be required to find security against re-commission of the offence. How utterly exceptional was the condition of the Game Laws might be judged from the evidence given before the latter Committee by an Under Secretary of State, who said— It is the only case that I am acquainted with in the Criminal Law where sureties are required for not committing a second offence in any charge relating to property—calling game property. I am not aware of any case in the whole range of English law where magistrates have the power, except under this Act, to impose hard labour with imprisonment in default of finding sureties. He (Mr. P. A. Taylor) was at a loss to know why the Government were proposing to modify these abominable Acts in one part of the country only; because he had shown, what everyone knew, that they acted as oppressively in England as they did in Scotland. He therefore submitted that there was no ground for confining the operation of the Bill to Scotland, and moved that— It be an Instruction to the Committee, That they have power to extend the operation of the Bill to the whole of the United Kingdom.


said, that if the House went into Committee on the Bill the Government would agree to report Progress on the 1st clause, in order to extend the operation of the measure to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Motion agreed to.

Ordered, That it be an Instruction to the Committee, That they have power to extend the operation of the Bill to the whole of the United Kingdom.—(Mr. P. A. Taylor.)

Bill considered in Committee.

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Thursday.