HL Deb 25 February 1818 vol 37 cc606-10
The Duke of Montrose

said, it was his duty to present to their lordships a bill, commonly called a Bill of Indemnity. It was founded upon the Report of the Secret Committee, and was intituled a Bill "for indemnifying persons who, since the 26th of January 1817, have acted in apprehending imprisoning, or detaining in custody, persons suspected of high treason, or treasonable practices, and in the suppression of tumultuous and unlawful assemblies." It was not necessary for him to say any thing in its support in this stage. He should merely propose, that the bill be now read a first time. On Friday, when he intended to move the second reading, he should submit to their lordships consideration some observations on the nature and object of the measure.

The Earl of Lauderdale

said, he would not have troubled their lordships with any observations on the noble duke's proposition at the present moment, if he did not conceive that it involved a question of considerable constitutional difficulty and importance. This consideration, induced him to oppose the measure even on the first reading. From the title of the bill, as he had heard it stated by the noble duke, it appeared to be a bill for indemnifying his majesty's ministers for every act they had done under the suspension of the Habeas Corpus. The bill, however, for aught their lordships knew, might extend still farther. Now, what was the situation in which their lordships were placed? They knew by the Journals of the other House of parliament, that papers had been also sent to that House, and referred to a committee. That committee had not yet reported, and their report might be such as to render any proceeding of the kind now proposed very improper to be adopted by their lordships. It surely was not known to their lordships, that the report of the Commons would acquit ministers. It might prove of a very different nature. Suppose it afforded matter on which that House should think fit to impeach ministers, their lordships would then have to sit as judges on a question which they had previously determined. He reminded the House, that on a former § occasion they had decided, in accordance with the opinion of a noble and learned lord, that they would not entertain a certain measure, because it might come before them in their judicial capacity. On the same ground this bill was not fit to be entertained; for if any regulating principle of their proceedings were more to be regarded than another, it' was this—that the House ought never to give an extrajudicial opinion. This, then, was a question of great importance to the constitution, and on that ground he trusted their lordships would be induced to delay all farther proceedings until they learned what measures might be adopted by the House of Commons. If they approved the principle of the bill proposed by the noble duke, and read it a second time on Friday next, they might be placed in the situation of assembling as judges after the)' had prejudged the question on which they would be called to decide.

The Earl of Liverpool

saw no possible ground for delay in the objection stated by the noble lord. If it were good for any thing, it would be equally good against a measure which their lordships had already sanctioned, namely, the appointment of a committee to inquire into the conduct of ministers on the papers which had been submitted to their consideration. This, it was true, was done without any knowledge on the part of their lordships as to what that committee would decide; but the objection that the House ought not to proceed to a legislative measure on the opinion of the committee, was equally strong against referring the papers to that committee in order that they might give an opinion to the House. The committee had, by the order of the House, examined these papers inquisitorially, and had come to an opinion, which was now on their lordships table. In pursuance of that opinion, his noble friend considered himself bound to introduce the bill he had presented. Whether that bill was warranted by the report was the question to be argued on the second reading. The noble lord had made the Supposition of the committee of the House of Commons coming to a different conclusion from their lordships committee; that was doubtless possible, but the supposition afforded no reason for delaying the progress of the present measure; since, if what the noble earl supposed did take place, the consequence would be, that the Commons would throw out the Indemnity bill when it came before them. Besides, the case was by no means a new one. There was, in particular, on the Journals of that parliament, a recent precedent of Ireland for the course now taken. The bill of indemnity for the proceedings of his majesty's servants during the disturbances in Ireland originated in the House of Lords, and it never was suggested, that it ought to be delayed until it should be seen what decision the House of Commons came to. It was most unreasonable to argue that their lordships ought to delay a measure which appeared to be the necessary result of the report of their committee, until the other House of parliament came to a decision. Their lordships were not bound to regulate their proceedings by that decision; of which, indeed, they could regularly know nothing, except through the medium of the votes of the House of Commons. Upon the whole, then, the noble earl had stated nothing which was sufficient to induce the House to stay the legislative measure now proposed to them. Whatever objections that measure might be liable to, would come regularly under discussion on the second reading of the bill on Friday.

Lord Holland

expected that the noble duke would have stated more at length what was the nature of the bill he had presented. He, however, did not mean to occupy their lordships time with any observations on that point, but rose merely to notice the answer which had been given to the objection of his noble friend who had been, it appeared, in some measure misunderstood. His noble friend had not argued that the House could not entertain this bill. His objection merely amounted to this; that, in a constitutional point of view, it was not proper nor prudent to proceed with such a measure when the other House of parliament had still to decide on the question of the conduct of ministers, and when there was before that House a considerable number of petitions, complaining of highly improper and unconstitutional acts. To the argument of the impropriety of proceeding with the measure under such circumstances, the noble secretary of state had given no satisfactory answer. He had referred to one precedent which appeared to be that which occurred in 1798, in the House of Lords of Ireland; but that was the precedent of a measure which had been condemned by the first lawyers in Ire- land and this country, and which was the disgrace of the parliament that passed it. The reference to such a precedent as that, afforded farther reason for a vigilant observance of this bill, lest some of the enormous provisions of the Irish act should be included in it. Without even waiting for the report of the Commons committee, it was possible that a member of that House might become possessed of facts, which would enable him to lay on the table articles of impeachment against some of his majesty's ministers. If such a proceeding were to take place, their lordships would be reading a second time a bill for indemnifying those who were about to be accused at their bar. The noble secretary of state had reminded their lordships, that the Commons might reject the bill of indemnity. Certainly they might; but then it was to be recollected that, besides that rejection, they might also come to the bar with a solemn accusation against those whom their lordships had just declared innocent. If their lordships wished that their acquittal should be honourable to those in whose favour it might he pronounced, they would adopt the course recommended by his noble friend. Could the people of England think an acquittal honourable and impartial, when it would appear to them that the question had been already prejudged? To delay the progress of this bill was no denial of their lordships power to originate and pass it. All that was proposed by his noble friend was, that they should suspend farther proceedings on it until after the report of the committee of the House of Commons should be made, and there should be no reason to suppose, that any articles of impeachment would be brought up from that House.

The Duke of Montrose

said, that the bill was of the same nature as the bills of indemnity proposed in similar cases, and he saw no reason for delaying its progress on the possibility of some other proceeding being instituted in the Commons. It was impossible to tell how long they might have to wait for the decision of the other House; and upon the same principle, the whole session might be allowed to pass away before the bill was read. He could not on such grounds consent to their lordships depriving themselves of the opportunity of proceeding with a measure which they had an unquestionable right to institute, and the propriety of which appeared undoubted.

Lord Holland moved, that instead of the word "now," for the first reading, the words, "this day se'nnight" be inserted.

The question, that the word "now" stand part of the question was put, and carried in the affirmative. The bill was then read a first time, and ordered to be printed.