HC Deb 29 January 1897 vol 45 cc876-81

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question proposed [26th January.] '"That the Bill be now read a Second time."

Question again proposed.—Debate resumed.

MR. SAMUEL EVANS (Glamorgan, Mid)

said the Bill contained a dangerous principle, because it proposed to change the Criminal Law, and that without discussion in the House. It introduced for the first time, with perhaps one exception, the principle that a man must prove his innocence; whereas the cardinal principle of the English Criminal Law was that every man charged with crime must be taken to be innocent until his guilt had been proved by process of law. The possible exception to this cardinal principle was a recent decision of the Judges to the effect that once it has been proved that any property has been stolen, then if anybody is in recent possession of it, the duty is cast upon him of showing how he came into such possession. That was a sufficient safeguard against any crime on the part of a receiver, but here it was proposed, not by the Government but by a private Member, that before anything was proved to have been stolen at all, anybody might be charged, with having in his possession or conveying anything which might be reasonably suspected of being stolen or unlawfully obtained, and without appeal, sentenced to a term of imprisonment. The Bill also imposed a penalty on anyone who might be reasonably suspected of having "unlawfully obtained" goods. Where were those words to be met with in the criminal law? It was only under the game laws that a man could be punished under suspicion; and it was too much to ask the House nowadays to extend the principle of legislation passed when every Member of the House was a game preserver. To read the Bill a Second time would be to affirm an objectionable principle, which could not be eliminated in Grand Committee. He hoped the Attorney General would say that this dangerous amendment of the criminal law ought not to be made on the motion of a private Member.


said that this was not a new enactment. The provisions of the Bill were already in force in Manchester, Liverpool and other large towns. It was simply convenient to make the law of general application.

MR. REES DAVIES, (Pembrokeshire)

said that he had been asked by the chief constable of his county to communicate with the hon. Gentleman as to the provisions of the Bill. But unless the Bill received the assent of the Attorney General it would be extremely dangerous for the House to give to it a Second Reading, as it involved a serious change in the Criminal Law of the Country. The onus of proof was shifted from the Crown to the prisoner. It would very much enlarge the powers of the police, and might render possible a system of police espionage—he invited the Attorney General to give his opinion on it.


said that he was not satisfied that this was an amendment of the law which ought to be made at the instigation of a private Member. He had always held that alterations of the criminal law ought to be made on the responsibility of the Government. But, on the other hand, what the Bill proposed was already the law in London, Liverpool, and other towns, and it was supposed by the promoters that there was a need for the extension of that law. He did not approve of the drafting of the Bill; but the Home Secretary had promised to consider this subject to see if an alteration of the law were desirable; and certainly, by reading this Bill a Second time the Government would not be bound to assent to the principle of the Measure.

MR. W. E. M. TOMLINSON (Preston)

thought it startling to be told that in London and other towns, by means of private Acts, clauses had been inserted which really gave a scope to the criminal law wider than that of the general law of the land. The introduction of a Bill of this kind showed the need that existed for exercising a close watch over the Bills introduced by private Members which proposed to make changes in the law. Unless that strict scrutiny was observed it might happen that different towns would have different codes of law.


thought that hon. Gentlemen opposite ought to take care that their Bills were in a proper shape before they submitted them to the House. But the Attorney General had not only condemned the bad drafting of the Bill, but laid down two propositions—first, that the principle of the Bill was one that the House should not be asked to accept hastily; and secondly, that it was not right that a Bill proposing a change in the law should be introduced by a private Member. These were weighty pronouncements, and he wondered they had not led to the immediate withdrawal of the Bill. They had had some experience in Ireland of persons being prosecuted on suspicion. It was now proposed to introduce that principle into England and Wales. It was very difficult for anyone to get through life without being suspected of something or another. [Laughter.] Even hon. Members were constantly suspected of having bad motives behind everything they did. [Laughter.] He therefore thought the Bill was one that should never have been introduced.


said the only point that had been made on behalf of the Bill was that it would make the law uniform all over the country—that the main clause of the Bill already existed in many local Acts. But that was not quite correct. When the Committee on Police and Sanitary Regulations passed the clause in respect to London, they knew that any cases that might arise would come before the police magistrates. In this Bill the authority was not a police magistrate, or a stipendiary magistrate, but it applied to all cases which might come before an ordinary justice of the peace. By it a working man who was walking along a country road with a hare in his hand might be suspected by a policeman of poaching, and taken before a justice of the peace whose property had recently suffered from poaching depredations. In this way the workman, who might have bought the hare from a friend—[laughter]—might be unjustly and summarily convicted and sent to prison.


said it appeared to him this Bill introduced a rather extraordinary innovation in criminal law.


rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put;" but MR. SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put the Question.


said the hon. Member for South Tyrone, in last October, told them that he would not like to see Ireland in the position of Lazarus, appealing for crumbs at the gate of Dives. Was this crumb to be refused to Ireland? If it were as good as its supporters said, why not extend it to Ireland? He held it was a bad Bill. They knew a great deal about reasonable suspicions in Ireland, and many people in that country had been unreasonably suspected and had served long terms of imprisonment under the Coercion Act. What was unjustly enforced in Ireland might be unjustly enforced in England. Many people would not be able to explain how they got possession of certain articles which were found upon them. It would be impossible for the people of this country to be sure that great injustice would not be done in many instances, as they would have to rely on the discretion of the policeman. The discretion of the police in Ireland was sometimes very small, but small as it was it was superior to that of the police in this country, as the Celtic race was admittedly superior to the Saxon in intelligence. [Laughter.] He ventured to think that some of the rural justices before whom these cases would come were rather stupid and they were a selfish class. He appealed to the hon. Gentleman opposite not to do away with the right of a citizen to be tried by twelve of his peers. [Ministerial laughter.] It was the right of every freeborn citizen to be deemed innocent until he was proved to be guilty. It was not a right they had always enjoyed in Ireland. But a discussion of affairs in Ireland would not be germane to the Motion. [Ministerial laughter.] It would be a fatal blow to the recognised rights of citizens of this Empire if, by a Bill of this kind, the liberty of the subject were left to the discretion of a policeman or a rural justice. He was surprised that a Member of the Party which were supposed —wrongfully in his own opinion—[laughter]—to be the bulwark of law and order should get up and try to force through a Bill like this in opposition to the opinion of the English Attorney General. What was the good of having an Attorney General—[loud Ministerial laughter]—and paying him a large salary; also a Solicitor General? [Renewed laughter.] Why should the country be asked, and the Irish people especially, to contribute to the sustenance of these gentlemen, when they found, on a grave and vital question such as this, the opinions of those grave and learned seignors—[loud laughter]—were not accepted by their followers?


rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put," but Mr. Speaker withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.—Debate resumed:—


said that, supposing he had in his possession a box of cigars or cigarettes he did not wish to account for—[laughter]—was he to be hauled before a magistrate because a policeman took it into his head to unreasonably suspect him? [Renewed laughter.] The policeman might not be able to understand the position in which he found himself, and he might be sent to the common gaol. If this Bill were passed many respectable men and ladies—[laughter]—might be sent to the common gaol, and—

MR. J. W. MACLURE (Lancs, Stretford)

rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put," but Mr. Speaker withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.—Debate resumed.


And compelled to associate with burglars and wife beaters. It would be a disgrace to the House and to the party of law and order if such a Bill were passed.

The hon. Member was speaking at Twelve o'clock, when the Debate was adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Monday next.