HC Deb 26 August 1887 vol 320 cc152-8

Order for Committee read.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That this House will, upon Monday next, resolve itself into the said Committee."

MR. HENRY H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

I rise, Sir, to move that this House do now adjourn, and I do it at this late hour partly because I think the Motion should be made to-night, and partly with a view to the convenience of the House to-morrow, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House (Mr. W. H. Smith) would prefer that I should not move the adjournment at the Sitting to-morrow. I move the adjournment of the House in connection with an answer which I received, or, rather, which I did not receive, from the Secretary of State for the Home Department at an early period of this evening. I should be very sorry to waste the time of the House upon any personal question, although I take it that it is the right of every Member of this House to interrogate any Minister of the Crown with reference to the discharge of his public duty, as it is the duty of a Minister of the Crown to give an answer. I asked the Home Secretary this evening whether he was prepared to sanction the continued imprisonment of three individuals in Leicester Goal upon a charge in respect of which two individuals had appealed, these two being released from prison, and the other three, under an order of the Court, remaining in prison and serving out their time of imprisonment, pending an appeal which cannot, of course, be disposed of until the month of November? In putting this Question I characterized the decision of the magistrates as a ridiculous one, and I repeat that description of it now. A large number of individuals have been brought before the magistrates at Stamford for holding a religious service in the Market Place at Stamford, which contains accommodation for 2,000 people, and they have been sent to prison upon the technical charge that they have obstructed the highway, the real offence they have committed being the holding of religious services in the Market Place of Stamford. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary was pleased to read me a re-proof for having criticized the decision: of the magistrates as ridiculous. I repeat the offence. But, whether my description of the decision be accurate or not, the Home Secretary was bound to have told me whether he did or did not intend that these three individuals should remain in prison. I then asked another Question—namely, whether I was to understand that it was the policy of the Homo Secretary and of the Government to show sympathy with and approval of this attempt to persecute Nonconformists? And to that Question the Home Secretary thought it right not to give any reply. [An hon. MEMBER: Quite right.] An hon. Member says "Quite right." I beg to differ from that hon. Member. The Home Secretary is, although he does not sometimes quite agree with that view, responsible to this House for any advice he gives to the Crown with reference to the administration of the Criminal Law of this country.

SIR GEORGE CAMPBELL (Kirkcaldy, &c.)

I rise to Order, Mr. Speaker. There is important Scotch Business down for to-night, and I wish to know whether the right hon. Gentleman is in Order in bringing forward this question on the Motion for the adjournment of the House?


No doubt the course taken by the right hon. Gentleman is an unusual one, and it may become a very inconvenient one; but this is the substantive Motion he has interposed between the Orders of the Day. I cannot stop any hon. Gentleman who likes to take such a course.


Is the right hon. Gentleman entitled to go into questions which do not strictly appertain to the adjournment of the House?


On a Motion for Adjournment a large range of subjects may be gone into.


This is a most important matter. I understand that 14 more persons are to be brought up to-morrow for precisely the same offence, and will be sent to prison. I think this subject is quite as important as Scotch Business. I do not, however, intend to detain the House many minutes. All I ask the Home Secretary to do in this case is what his Predecessors have invariably done. Previous Home Secretaries have invariably corrected mistakes which local magistrates have made in the administration of the law. It is as common a practice on the part of the Home Office almost as the signing of the name of the Home Secretary to revise the decision of magistrates and to reduce sentences given by them. There have been already 20 persons sent to prison at Stamford for the offence of preaching in the Stamford Market—sent to associate with felons and vagabonds for 21 days. I venture to say that that is a state of things which this country will not endure. I have no wish to express in any way an opinion upon the legal question which is now going before the Courts—namely, the question whether the Market Square is or is not a highway. Upon the decision of that question will depend a great deal the right of public meeting in open spaces in this country. I have no wish to prejudge that question. Let it be decided by the Court of Queen's Bench in November; but I do ask that, until the question is settled, these well-meaning and conscientious people, who are endeavouring to do something to improve the moral and religious condition of the masses of their fellow-countrymen, should not be sent to prison as common vagabonds and thieves.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Henry H. Fowler.)


I am myself a Nonconformist, and I suppose I am about the last man in this House who wants to see the religious services of Nonconformists interfered with. I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman supposed for a moment that I was wanting in courtesy to him. Nothing was farther from my thought or wish. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well how this case stands. The Justices of Stamford are persons appointed by law to administer the law in their own town. They know the circumstances of their town; they know the situation of the streets of their town; they know the wishes of the inhabitants of their town; and it would be presumptuous in me, especially when the case is now before the Court of Appeal, to express a confident opinion, which I do not in the least find fault with the right hon. Gentleman, who holds strong feelings on the matter, expressing—namely, that the magistrates have given a ridiculous decision. For all I know, he may be right, and the magistrates may be wrong; but the information at my command does not enable me to pronounce that absolute condemnation of the magistrates which the right hon. Gentleman has done. I am assured by the magistrates that religious feeling or prejudice has had nothing to do with this decision. Of course, there was in one sense a religious ceremony. These people belonged to what is called the Salvation Army, and they were holding a service—if it is to be called a service. There was a service—I suppose it is a service—in the square. [Cries of "Why not?"] I am not saying it is not a service, but I believe one does not generally associate the celebrations of the Salvation Army with any particular form of religious rite. [Cries of "Oh, oh!"] I do not mean to be at all disrespectful to those people. I should certainly not have called it a service. I dare say it is a service; but I do not know whether it is or not. The magistrates inform me that the service attracted a concourse of people so large and so noisy that it constituted an obstruction of the thoroughfare. It would ill become me to say whether that is a right decision or not. I am not the authority to say whether there was an obstruction or not. Neither does it become me to say whether the square is a public highway. That seems to many men a doubtful proposition. It may be that the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in describing the decision of the magistrates as a ridiculous decision; but the question is now before the Court of Appeal. As I understand the right hon. Gentleman, he wants me to interpose while the case is pending before the Court of Appeal—he wants me, in respect of the defendants who have not appealed, to interpose with the mercy of the Crown to advise Her Majesty to remit the penalty altogether. I do not dispute, Sir, that I have a right to do that if the case is perfectly clear; but I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will not tell me it is my duty to do that in a case which is not perfectly clear. Unless I saw my way to as strong a judgment as he himself has formed as to the decision of the magistrates, it would not be right for me to interfere. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that imprisonment in default of the payment of a fine varies with the amount of the fine. In all those cases where the fines are above £1—[Mr. Henry H. FOWLER: £1 and costs"]—I have not the power to remit a fine, and the right hon. Gentleman is aware that by a very recent Act of Parliament—the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879—magistrates may give one month's imprisonment in case of default to pay a fine. If the fine is under £1 the imprisonment is 14 days; if the fine is over £l the imprisonment is a month. The magistrates in this case ordered an imprisonment of three weeks in default of the payment of the fine. I think the right hon. Gentleman has not given an accurate definition of the sort of imprisonment these men are undergoing. They are not classed with felons. Of course they are under confinement, and I am not going to minimize the hardship of that. I have often thought very strongly that people who are sent to prison because they will not, for conscientious reasons, pay a fine, ought to receive different treatment from people guilty of an offence of a criminal character; but I have no authority to order different treatment of such people. The law does not permit me to do it. The rules under which the discipline of prisons are regulated do not depend upon me, and I cannot alter them. The men have gone to prison not because they cannot pay the fine, but because they will not, for conscientious reasons, pay it.


The men were asked whether they had any goods or any property, and they said they had nothing but what they stood up in.


I was not aware of that. I understood that these men— and I confess that I thought it did them great credit—said they declined to pay anything at all, and would go to prison for conscientious motives. The House knows that there are a number of people who go to prison for such motives. People will not have their children vaccinated upon conscientious grounds. I am sorry to see people imprisoned undergoing all the hardships prison rules impose for such reasons. But it would not be right in me to set about the liberation of all the people sent to prison because they will not pay fines or obey the order of magistrates to vaccinate their children. One cannot help sympathizing with people who are punished in this way; but the law prevents me from taking the coarse the right hon. Gentleman suggests, unless I can see my way to the particular conclusion the right hon. Gentleman has arrived at—namely, that the decision of the magistrates is a ridiculous one.


The right hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. What I referred to as ridiculous was the punishment of these people really for preaching, the nominal offence being the technical charge of obstructing the highway. All I ask is that the right hon. Gentleman should extend the prerogative of mercy towards these poor people who have already undergone a fortnight's imprisonment for this offence.


Will the right hon. Gentleman pardon me. I must take the facts as they appear in evidence before the magistrates. The magistrates assure me that there was real obstruction of that square. The right hon. Gentleman talks of the magistrates hiding themselves behind the technical charge of obstruction. The magistrates further assure me that in endeavouring to put down these assemblages in the square they were acting according to the wishes of the inhabitants of the town of Stamford. The residents of the square have appealed over and over again to the magistrates to prevent these assemblages, and each of the men now undergoing imprisonment has been cautioned by the magistrates and asked not to assemble crowds in the public square, but to go somewhere else. They have refused to do so, and it is only after repeated warnings that the magistrates have put the law into force. In the present state of the case, I cannot assume that the magistrates have acted improperly. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I had no intention to administer a reproof to him; let me say, further, that neither on my part nor on the part of Her Majesty's Government is there the slightest desire to interfere with anything which seems like a proper exercise of religious feeling on the part of any one of Her Majesty's subjects.


As there seems to be a little misconception, let me say how the matter stands. When the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Henry H. Fowler) rose to move the adjournment of the House, the impression conveyed to my mind was that he wished the House to adjourn on account of the lateness of the hour. I was not aware he was going to raise a debate upon the Motion for Adjournment interpolated between the Orders of the Day. Of course, upon a Motion for the Adjournment of the House on the ground of the lateness of the hour, a question might be put and an answer given; but it would be quite contrary to every precedent to interpolate between the Orders of the Day a Motion for Adjournment, and to discuss upon such Motion a subject not at all relevant to any Order of the Day. I hope the House will not establish this precedent. It was only by a misconception on my part, and I think on the part of hon. Members also, that what has taken place has been allowed at all.


Allow me, Sir, to say one word in explanation, I understood I was complying with the Rules of the House. I waited until the Orders of the Day were called, and then moved the Motion for Adjournment, though not as an interpolation between, two Orders. I apprehended I was in Order, on an Order of the Day being called, in moving that the House do adjourn. I was, perhaps, too anxious to save the time of the House, and did not explain myself fully. I was under the impression that I was entitled to move the adjournment of the House upon the ground, of the action the Government took earlier in the evening. I can recall many precedents when the action of the Government has been challenged in this way—cases in which hon. Members have said it is not right they should proceed with the Business in hand until they have received from the Government some explanation upon a given point. I, of course, bow to your ruling. Sir; and if I am wrong I beg to withdraw the Motion.


I thought the right hon. Member was moving a bond fide adjournment of the House, and it was on that understanding that I allowed the Question to be put.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Committee upon Monday next.