HL Deb 28 January 1818 vol 37 cc56-65
Lord Sidmouth

presented a bill for repealing the act passed in the last session of parliament, to empower his majesty to secure and detain persons suspected of conspiring against his majesty's person and government. Having read the title of the bill, his lordship moved that it be now read a first time. The bill was accordingly read a first time. After which, on the noble lord's motion, the standing order relative to the progress of public bills was suspended. On the motion for the second reading of the bill,

Lord Holland

, though he certainly did not rise to oppose the motion, could not avoid saying a few words on the circumstances which had led to it. His majesty's ministers had dwelt on the difficulties they had experienced from the dangerous situation of the country, and he was ready to acknowledge that, in proposing the present measure, they had done more than he expected from them; but whatever might have been the difficulties of the times, the bill which was now about to be repealed, he would assert, had been one of the greatest calamities the country had experienced. Last year, parliament had consented on the representation of his majesty's ministers, supported by erroneous and imperfect evidence, to sanction the measure they were now about to repeal. Their lordships had then allowed themselves to be surprised into a course, on the adoption of which it was pretended the safety of the country depended. His majesty's ministers had been either actually the tools of wicked and designing men, or had been led away by the desire of obtaining undue power to themselves. Believing, as he did, that the whole of their lordships' proceedings in passing the act for suspending the Habeas Corpus had rested upon garbled and unfair evidence, he must state that he could not be satisfied with the mere repeal of that act, and that he thought an inquiry into the grounds on which it had been passed ought to be instituted. No proceeding could have been more dangerous to the true interests of the country, than that to which their lordships had given their sanction on evidence so totally imperfect. The right which had been suspended, he wished to remind them, was not one which had been granted by any act of parliament whatever. The personal liberty of the people was no concession. It was a right antecedent to any statute, and equal to the right of their lordships to vote in that House, or to the right of the king to sit on the throne. He did not mean to say that there was any absolute limitation to the power of parliament on this subject, when circumstances rendered such a stretch of power indispensable; but he did say, that to suspend this right of the people was an act of as great violence as to suspend the prerogatives of the crown, and could only be justified by the clearest evidence of the most overwhelming necessity. Consistently with this view, he thought their lordships could not let the matter pass over with the mere repeal of an act which had been so unjustifiably passed. It was their lordships duty to show, that a law which deprived the people of their most important right, of per- sonal liberty, was a calamity which was not to be inflicted without proof, or without some subsequent proceeding, which would demonstrate to the latest posterity, that they considered themselves pledged to guard against such unjust encroachments in future. He trusted then, that parliament, when all pretence of any danger from investigation should be over, would institute an inquiry into the nature of the evidence on which the act of the last session had been passed. The evidence on such an inquiry must not be of the ex-parte and suspicious nature which their lordships were induced to accept of last year. It must not be evidence prepared by persons seeking power, or wishing to retain it. Nothing could be satisfactory, and nothing would satisfy the country, but a fair and impartial investigation. A full examination into all the circumstances which took place at the passing of the act, and of all which had occurred since, was what the occasion demanded, when the liberties of the people had been so violently invaded. He trusted it was unnecessary for him to urge the importance of this right on their lordships' minds, but he could not help dwelling upon it. He must repeat, that it was the most ancient of all the rights of the people of this country. It rested neither on the Magna Charta, the act of Habeas Corpus, or the Bill of Rights, though it was reasserted in them. The act of 1672, in the reign of Charles 2nd, by which it was legislatively enacted, did not constitute the right. The ancestor of the noble lord, whom he now saw before him (the earl of Shaftesbury), then stood up, honourably and manfully for this best right of the people, and contributed greatly to that measure by which it was confirmed. And at what time was that important act passed? At the moment when the House of Lords and Commons were in a state of the greatest alarm from the apprehension of plots and conspiracies. Afterwards, when the whole country was thrown into consternation by the popish plots—whether true or false, he did not at present pretend to determine—no idea was started of repealing the Habeas Corpus act. Neither the Rye-house plot, nor any other plot, had been thought sufficient, even in those convulsed times, to warrant the legislature in depriving the subject of personal liberty.—Returning to the act of last session, he must again assert, that no ground for it had been laid at the time it was passed, and nothing had since occurred to show that there was any thing in the state of the country which called for it. Where was any disturbance or conspiracy to be found that could justify such a measure? It was not to be found in any of the legal proceedings which had taken place in the metropolis, nor even at Derby. Did it appear in any of the proceedings which had taken place in Scotland? A dreadful oath—an oath which was not fit to be publicly stated—it was said, had been taken in that country by the disaffected ministers, it. was asserted, had the fullest evidence of a most extensive conspiracy, but which evidence they did not choose to disclose. Well, their law-officers proceeded to try these conspirators, and oath-takers in Scotland. At first, their indictment was wrong; a new indictment was preferred; but, after all, they failed in proving that any illegal oath had been taken. None of these proceedings afforded any appearance of a necessity for the measure which ministers had recommended and which parliament had been induced to adopt. But the noble earl opposite, had declared that he was ready to prove, not only that the measure was justified by the state of the country at the time, but that it had been productive of the greatest advantages. That the country was in better circumstances now than last year he was happy to believe: but whatever improvement had taken place, certainly was not owing to the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. Were the truth of this assertion of ministers to be admitted by their lordships there would be no longer any security for personal liberty. On any future occasion, when desirous of obtaining an undue increase of power, if they could persuade parliament to suspend the Ha-cas Corpus act on ex-parte evidence, they would have nothing more to do, supposing the state of the country to have, from other causes, improved, than to come forward next year, and say, "You see what advantages have been derived from following our recommendation." On the contrary, if it should happen to be followed by discontent and distress, ministers would thereby acquire an argument for prolonging their undue authority. They would say, "You see now the measure we called for was necessary, and that the suspension of the law must be continued." Nothing, however, could excuse such a measure, but an evident proof of its necessity, founded on a full and im-impartial investigation. Last session their lordships had heard much of blasphemous productions: but had these productions been put down by the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act? It was not said they were now in circulation. Was it the three-fold prosecution of Mr. Hone which ministers had tried against them, that had produced this effect? This was certain—that with respect to these publications, things remained in the same state as last year; and if they were no longer a subject of complaint, it could not be owing to any of the measures of the noble lord. With regard to that prosecution, it was not his wish to say much, lest any thing which might fall from him on that subject should be taken as a vindication of the species of publication against which the prosecution was instituted. So far from wishing to vindicate that sort of writing, he rather thought it ought, in point of good taste as well as of decency, to be discouraged. At the same time he could not help saying, that these prosecutions bore about them such marks of hypocrisy as he had never before witnessed. Was there any man in the country so weak as to believe, that the writer of the parodies against which ministers had manifested so much indignation, would have been questioned had he ridiculed persons in opposition to the government? His friends had often been made the subject of such satire, and yet, on those occasions, the government never thought religion so endangered by such publications as to render it necessary for the attorney-general to prosecute them. He recollected a parody published by those connected with the noble lord's administration, against persons in opposition, of which the words of our Saviour himself were the subject. Now, wishing to speak with all respect of the liturgy of the church of England, he should only say, that he thought it most extraordinary that prosecutions should be instituted for (parodies on it, while parodies on the words of the scriptures themselves were allowed to pass unnoticed. He recollected a parody, which had been published in all the ministerial newspapers of the time, against the late Mr. Paull. It was of the most disgusting nature, and yet no notice had been taken of it. When it was so evident to all the world, that the prosecu- tions brought against Mr. Hone had been instituted for political reasons only, it was impossible for the country not to despise the hypocritical pretences under which they were brought forward. This was an unavoidable consequence which ministers must endure; for, in order that motives should be respected, it was necessary that they should be truly respectable. It did not become any administration to inflict severe punishments on one set of men who might be hostile to them, for the same kind of acts which they viewed with indulgence when committed by others in their favour. To return to the question of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus. It was an act of the most pernicious tendency to suspend the personal liberty of the subject in a time of profound peace, and formed a precedent of the most lamentable tendency. Such acts left rents in the constitution which could not afterwards be closed. He trusted, however, that a strict inquiry would be made as to the manner in which this act had been executed. He had heard that it was intended to appoint a committee to investigate what had taken place since the last session, and if that was the case, he trusted it would not be a committee to take upon trust the statements of ministers, garbled and imperfect, but that, on the contrary, they would examine vivâ voce testimony, and not merely the agents of, or the witnesses sent by government, but whatever witnesses they themselves should think proper to call. To enter into such an examination closely and attentively, and with a determination to get at the truth, was the only atonement they could now make for having suspended the liberty of the subject, and placed powers in the hands of the ministers, upon the pretences that had been urged, that had been harshly and oppressively used.

Lord Sidmouth

said, he did not expect that the noble lord would have thought it necessary, on the present occasion, to address to their lordships observations of the nature of those they had just heard, though he was aware that the circumstance of such a bill being on the table left the noble lord at perfect liberty to adopt the course he had taken. The noble lord had stated, that there was no necessity for the act of last session. Of this assertion, he should only say, that the report made by the committee appointed by their lordships, and on the authority of which the act was passed, afforded its complete refutation. The noble lord had also asserted, that the evidence produced by ministers was garbled, and that information which ought to have been communicated to the committee was withheld. He well knew that the noble lord was incapable of stating any thing which he did not in his conscience believe to be true, but he could assure their lordships that every kind of information which could with propriety be laid before the committee had been produced to them, and that nothing had been withheld which was necessary to enable them to arrive at a fair and proper conclusion on the question submitted to their consideration. The noble lord also denied that the act of last session had been of any advantage to the country. In the Prince Regent's Speech, it was true, only the other causes which had contributed to the returning prosperity of the country were mentioned, but it did not follow that great benefit had not been derived from the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act. There never was a greater contrast exhibited by the country than that which the comparison of its present state with that of last year afforded; and he would now maintain, and if the occasion should arrive, would prove, that the act of last session, had mainly contributed to this result. The effects it had had in many parts of the country did not rest on assertion: they were already proved. The magistrates and persons best informed in the county of Leicester, stated, on their own knowledge, that the passing of the suspension act had produced tranquillity in manufacturing districts where the greatest alarm for the peace of the country had previously existed. In another place, where there had been a more formidable manifestation of treason, the good effects of the measure had been still more apparent—he meant that insurrection in consequence of which a bill of indictment had been found against the offenders who were tried at Derby. On that occasion, ten of the persons accused fled; four were sentenced to suffer death; and in all, thirty-one confessed themselves guilty of treason, some of whom were transported, and the remainder pardoned. These men, besides making a confession of their guilt gave certain information, that an insurrection of a much more formidable nature than that in which they I had been engaged was in contemplation, and would infallibly have taken place had not the Habeas Corpus act been suspended. It was that measure alone which had deterred them. Thus it was proved by incontrovertible evidence, that the measure for which the noble lord contended there was no necessity, had preserved the peace and tranquillity of the country. Much stress had been laid on the destitute condition and humble circumstances of those who had last year disturbed the public peace: it was true that their means were very inadequate to the objects they had in view; but even had they never expected fully to effect their purposes, was there no medium between the holding of their seditious meetings, and a state of things in which the throne itself was exposed to tumultuous attacks? The truth, however was, that many of the movers in those lamentable disturbances, were far from being men of mean or contemptible talents; and possessed powers of writing and expression by which they exercised a very considerable degree of influence over the lower classes. It was entirely attributable to the withdrawing the influence of these men by the operation of the suspension act, that no convulsions had since taken place in that part of the kingdom to which he had alluded, and which had before been disturbed by the events that led to the trials at Derby. As the noble lord had adverted to the trial of Mr. Hone, it was necessary that he should make some reply to what had fallen from him. He had, indeed, little expected that any complaints would be made in that House on the subject of this prosecution. Great complaints had been made both in Parliament and out of it, that ministers lad delayed to prosecute a number of offences of this description: they were loudly called on to do so, and they yielded at length to the call, not from hypocritical motives, not from a pretended regard to religion, but because they saw, in the progress of disaffection, that the same means were pursued to alienate the affections of the people from their government, as had been resorted to with such fatal success in a neighbouring country—he meant a continued attempt to sap the religion and morals of the community, and render contemptible in the eyes of the people every thing that was sacred and established. He was willing to admit that government never showed its wisdom more than when it knew what offences to overlook, as well as what to prosecute; but he thought the prosecution in question peculiarly called for by the circumstances of the times, and the insidious attempts of the disaffected. Recurring to the subject of the Habeas Corpus, he was unconscious of any harsh or cruel exercise of the powers entrusted to ministers. The responsibility for the due execution of the act of course chiefly rested with himself; and he could only say that he had anxiously endeavoured to do his duty, that he had acted to the best of his judgment, leniently but firmly, "nec temere nec timide"—that he had only in view to prevent the threatening danger, and had not been the means of depriving individuals of their liberty, any farther than the necessity of the case required. As to the panegyric that the noble lord had passed on the privilege of Englishmen to be called to trial, and publicly charged with the offences of which they were suspected, his majesty's ministers had shown their respect for these glorious and exalted rights in the proceedings of that day. The act then under their consideration did not expire until the 1st of March, and there was no record on the Journals of the House, that an act of that description had ever been repealed, or not suffered to run out to its utmost limit. But his majesty's ministers admitted that nothing could justify the continuance of such an act but the necessity which originated it, and when that necessity ceased, it was due to the legislature and to the people of this country to repeal it forthwith. But in recommending this repeal, it was not that his majesty's ministers considered there was an absence of all disposition to disturb the public peace: that was far from being the case; there was a sufficient number of daring and unprincipled individuals, both in and out of the metropolis, who were ready to seize every opportunity of exciting and continuing disaffection and tumult. But the mere existence of bad men ready to excite and promote confusion, was not of itself a sufficient reason for suspending one of the great bulwarks of our constitution, unless those men had also the power of carrying their designs into execution. That they possessed that power last year was admitted by the vote of their lordships, and the bill they had passed; but the means of evil in the hands of these men were so abated, that the means of reducing them ought also to be left to the power of the law and the magistracy of the country. He should not detain their lordships any longer. It was the intention of the Prince Regent to lay before their lordships papers touching the internal state of the country. It would be for their lordships to decide how they should be disposed of. Many opportunities would arise, in the course of the session, of discussing the measures lately resorted to by the government, and on the propriety of those measures he was ready to state his unshaken conviction.

The bill was then read a second time, the commitment negatived, and the bill ordered to be engrossed. The engrossed bill was brought into the House almost immediately. It was then read a third time, passed, and ordered to be sent to the Commons.