HL Deb 10 May 1811 vol 19 cc1169-74

Upon the motion for the House to resolve itself into a Committee upon this Bill,

Lord Ellanborough

said, he rose for the purpose of opposing this motion, because he was satisfied the Bill was composed of such mischievous and dangerous matter as would destroy the commercial credit of the country. To the common retail dealers in trade this Bill would be absolute destruction. The creditor was entirely neglected in its provisions, and he was sure that House ought, in all its legislative acts, particularly to attend to the honest and injured creditor. If this measure passed into a law, a debtor, whatever might be his conduct, provided it were not an offence coming under the description of obtaining goods by false pretences, which was made, in some instances, a transportable offence, would have the power of claiming the benefit of it, whereby he could remain no longer in prison than six months. Was it reasonable that debts generally contracted otherwise than criminally, should be subjected to so small a degree of punishment? in addressing himself to their lordships as landholders, he would put the case—suppose they had a tenant under a lease, and he were to injure the premises, hew down and destroy a family mansion, plough up an ancient pasture, and use means which rendered the whole estate sterile and barren; in short, if he were to commit to the greatest extent all the acts of voluntary waste, what would their lord ships think, when, by this Bill, after they had proceeded against him, and obtained damages, he could surrender his effects, and after remaining six months in prison, walk out of gaol and laugh at his creditor? The Bill in its principle was full of vicious objections, and be should therefore oppose the motion for going into a Committee.

The Earl of Moira

declared, such was his respect for the opinion of his noble and learned friend, that he never rose in that House to state his sentiments in opposition to such an opinion, but he felt that diffidence which made him distrust his own judgment. But on a question of this nature he had gained such experience from turning his attention to it during a succession of years, that he felt himself confident of having some clear knowledge on the subject. Could their lordships say that there were not evils of great magnitude, which this Bill went to remove? No man would pretend to state, that the noble and learned lord who introduced the measure did not mean to have it understood, this was a measure which might not require future amendment? The Bill was not that which accorded with his own notions of what it ought to be, but that would not prevent him from giving it his firm support, for he was persuaded some measure of this description was absolutely due to the justice of our laws, and was confidently expected by the people of this country. All provisions of a legislative nature, when first made, to remove abuses or evils, were experiments, because at the time of framing a law it was impossible for human foresight to calculate all its consequences, or to anticipate all its collateral bearings. But after their entry on their journals of the evils, the abominable and oppressive grievances, which had arisen out of the present practice, that House was pledged to introduce this, or a similar measure, for the purpose of removing such evils; and if they should abandon every mode of putting an end to so much cruel oppression, their characters would' be covered with indelible disgrace in the eyes of the country. The present system or practice, he contended, was a mass of rubbish and of oppression, that, ought to be entirely removed; the soil ought to be removed from under it, before, any super- structure of justice could be erected on its foundations. Indeed it was a system contrary to all the general principles of our law, that an individual should have it in his power, at his own will and caprice, to hold in prison, for an unlimited time, one of his fellow-subjects. His noble and learned friend had certainly mistaken the object of the Committee; for he could assert, and assert it without a possibility of contradiction, that in that Committee the same regard was equally extended to the creditor and the debtor. But would his noble and learned friend say, that it could be any satisfaction to a creditor to hold the body of his debtor in perpetual confinement? The inconveniences of this act might and would be many, which was the consequence of all legal measures, when first provided. But even if all the fanciful evils stated by his noble and learned friend, should, contrary to every probability, really occur, yet it was fair to turn our attention to the other side; for, let all the evils suggested by the unlimited fancy of imagination be put into one scale, and then let all the oppression and cruelty contained in the report be put in the other, and the evils fancied by his noble and learned friend, taking them to be well founded, would be as a feather in the balance. It had been said how this Bill would apply in respect to a tenant committing waste upon an estate; still, that was stating a particular case; and granting such a case deserved a more severe punishment, for God's sake let us provide some other legislative remedy. But would their lordships, for such a solitary objection, resist the remedy which they had pledged themselves to afford to the unfortunate debtor? Why, the debtor was a rich man, and yet he fraudulently wronged his just creditor, by refusing payment, and going to prison; and in the rules of the King's Bench he often lived in affluence and luxury, till the poor creditor, for want of his money, was ruined, and came to a gaol. Let any man read the mass of oppression detailed in the Report of the Committee; it was such that, when he asserted its existence, during the zeal which had existed for twenty years in this cause, it was scarcely credible, because the facts were so enormous and so abominable, that they could scarcely be supposed to exist. Let any one read those facts detailed, and he would defy him to deny the necessity of some legislative provision to remove them; because, if he did, it would damn his cha- racter for ever. Without any disrespect to his noble and learned friend (whose opinion he should ever esteem, nor should any contention like the present ever alter the high regard he had for him,) he must press the necessity of some measure like the present, and for that reason he would, support this Bill; and he did enjoin his noble and learned friend to offer them his advice and assistance, whereby the Bill might be rendered more beneficial. The dirt and rubbish of the present system must be removed, otherwise no wholesome superstructure could be erected in its place; and he thought this Bill, though not what he wished it to be, would produce that happy effect. For these reasons he opposed the motion of his noble and learned friend.

The Lord Chancellor

did not intend to support the motion, as he thought it was understood the Bill should pass the Committee, and the objection to its principle might be taken in a further stage. But, indeed, there were so many objectionable parts in the Bill, and he perceived so much difficulty in amending them, that although he was not averse to its principle, yet he was afraid when it should have gone through the Committee, and should have been re-committed again, it would not be that Bill which would permit him to give it his support, in order that it might pass into a law. The machinery was such as, in his opinion, could never operate; and if it could, as it now stood, it was not likely to give relief, without also doing injury. But he would recommend to his noble and learned friend to withdraw his motion, and having made his protest against the principle, he might oppose it in a future stage.

Lord Ellenborough

was convinced of the purity and justice of the noble earl's disposition, which had led him so often to bring this matter before the House. He meant no sort of incivility to that noble earl, for whom he had so much respect, and he might say friendship; but he must repeat, that all his experience and observation convinced him of the impropriety of passing such a Bill. The clause by which six months' imprisonment might free the debtor from his obligations was particularly obnoxious. He, therefore, using a common phrase, would only say, that he had nothing farther to add; but that he now wished to wash his hands of the business. His own time and attention I would, perhaps, be better directed to the discharge of his various duties in another place. As for the Report of the Committee on the Journals, he knew very little of it, and he believed that to be the case with many other noble lords. He concluded by observing, that with respect to the tendency of that document, his noble friend might have the consolation offered to a person, who expressed in his latter days some apprehension lest his writings should do injury to posterity, when the friend of that person bid him be easy on that subject, for nobody had ever read them.

It was then ordered that the motion be withdrawn, and the House went into a Committee.

Earl Stanhope

said, he did not approve of the present Bill, though he approved of the principle en which it was founded. The noble earl then suggested several amendments to the Bill, particularly one altering the time of confinement.

Lord Redesdale

opposed this Amendment, as being contrary to the general intention of the measure.

Earl Stanhope

observed, he should not divide the House, because it would inform the public of their empty benches. Indeed, the House was so thin that he should not press his Amendment; but there was great defect in the machinery of this Bill, and the expenses were so great that it appeared to him like an oyster when it was opened; for the lawyer would eat the inside himself, and one of the shells would be left for the debtor and the other for the creditor. The noble earl, after suggesting some other defects, said, he should leave the Bill in the hands of the noble and learned lord, who might cook it as he pleased, but if he did not admit some alterations, it would not be cooked at all to his taste.

The Earl of Moira

suggested the propriety of avoiding debate, and for the present to let the Bill proceed through the Committee.

Earl Stanhope

said there was one defect—it did not punish the parsons—the parsons would by this Bill be freed from the confinement imposed upon others.

The Bill then passed through the Committee.

Lord Grantley

intimated the difficulty of the present Bill passing into a law and as there was an expectation justly entertained by debtors, he recommended the propriety of introducing a common Insolvent Debtors' Bill.

Lord Redesdale

said, it would depend how the House disposed of the present Bill; but he could assure the noble lord, there was not that difficulty of execution apprehended; and it would operate as a Bill of Insolvency, for most of its provisions were exactly similar to those of the last Insolvent Debtors' Bill.