HL Deb 11 April 1826 vol 15 cc150-5
The Earl of Darnley

rose to bring under the consideration of their lordships, the subject of which he had last night given notice. Although, the noble earl said, the late lamentable occurrence on the coast of Kent, attended with the loss of a valuable life, had been the immediate cause of his calling their lordships' attention to the subject, this was not the only circumstance which had influenced him, nor was that the first time he had felt an interest in the matter. It was not so much the particular transaction he complained of, as the system. He could not believe, indeed, that such an order as the one issued by the officer, that whenever three persons were assembled together, and did not answer or did not disperse, they were to be immediately fired at (although that order had been laid before the coroner's jury), had ever been authorized, or would be confirmed by the officer's superiors. Such an order would lead to a breach of the peace with very innocent persons, and men engaged in very peaceable avocations might be treated as smugglers, and their meetings have a similar termination. To show that the transaction alluded to was not the only one of the kind, he would mention, that he had been credibly informed, that there was now standing a tomb-stone in Hastings churchyard, on which it was inscribed, that the person beneath it was a fisherman, pursuing his peaceable avocation; that he had been hailed by the boats of the Preventive Service, and not having immediately answered, he had been fired at and shot. This had been stated on the coroner's inquest, and a verdict of wilful murder had been returned. He also knew that the operation of the system was vexatious to all those who lived in the neighbourhood. It was some years ago since a gallant officer, captain M'Culloch, supposing, probably, somewhat like his illustrious namesake, who had written on Irish absenteeism, that it was the same thing whether the men eat their provisions on board or on shore, and that they could be as well trained up for seamen while living on the land, as under his eye on board-ship, had proposed this method of employing our seamen during peace. At first, he believed, the men so employed were seamen; but, as they had been discharged, their places had been supplied, not by landsmen merely, not even by raw countrymen, but by Irishmen, who could scarcely understand the language of the people among whom they exercised their functions, and were unacquainted with the use of the fire-arms they were intrusted with. He had once been arrested himself, on landing near his own house, at Sandgate, in the middle of the day. Not only was he stopped by one of the men, but his portmanteau was examined, and the man claimed the right of examining his person. This he had denied; but if the man had persisted, he would have had no remedy, as the man was armed. He had insisted on seeing the officer who had disavowed the proceeding, and with proper feeling had made an ample apology, and had offered to have the man punished, which he (lord D.) had declined, as he did not think he was in fault, but the system. When this had happened to himself in the middle of the day, their lordships might judge how vexatious the same inquiries must be to the poor people who constantly lived within the sphere of the activity of those administrators of martial law. Great as were the evils of this system, he believed that smuggling had not decreased under it, but was as much carried on as ever. Indeed, it was absurd to suppose, as long as the temptation was so great, that any system could put a stop to it. The Preventive Service could not seal the whole coast from Sheerness to Portsmouth hermetically against the introduction of commodities. As his motion was not to be opposed, he would not enter further into details. He was convinced, even if the object proposed was attained, that it was purchased at too dear a rate, by exposing the property and persons of all those who came under its influence to the rudeness of men unable to exercise the power intrusted to them with discretion. But, if the object were not attained, as he was disposed to believe it was not, then it was the duty of parliament to interfere and put an end to it. He should now move, "That there be laid before their lordships a Return of all the Officers and Men employed in the Preventive Service, distinguishing the able seamen; and also an account of the annual expense of the whole Preventive Service."

Lord Melville

said, that the noble earl was entirely misinformed. No such command or order had been given as that which he had mentioned, justifying the men to use violence of any kind, on any of his majesty's subjects, that could lead to a breach of the peace, or an interruption of lawful avocations. No such order had been given; on the contrary, orders had been repeatedly given, that they should, on no occasion, use any kind of violence, or even resistance, unless they were first attacked. It could not be expected, that men with arms in their hands should not defend themselves when attacked. They were intitled, like other men, under similar circumstances, to use their arms. On the night of the late accident, armed bands of smugglers had been seen collecting in sundry places on the coast, near Hythe, where the accident had occurred. Notices of this had been given, and the men ordered to be particularly on the alert. The individual mentioned had been alarmed, and took on himself to do that for which he was responsible to the law of the land; which was, in fact, in direct disobedience of the orders he had received, and unhappily he had discharged his musket at his own officer. Before that particular service was established, troops had been employed to perform the same duties, and people were then as liable to be fired at, for not answering, as at present. It was necessary, for the security of the revenue, that some such force should be employed. If the noble earl supposed that smuggling could be prevented on that part of the coast, by the ordinary revenue officers, he was much mistaken. They were quite inadequate to keep down the smugglers. Within a few days information had reached the Admiralty, which would satisfy the noble earl, had he seen it, that there was a necessity to have a large force on the coast, not only to protect the revenue, but to preserve the peace of that part of the country. For assemblies of armed men to resist the officers of the government, whether they were revenue officers, soldiers, or sailors, in the execution of their duty, had long ago been declared a capital offence. Such assemblies must be put down by the strong arm of the law. The system of the preventive service was projected, as the noble earl said truly, by a gallant officer now no more; and it had partly for its object to keep our seamen employed during peace. As we had to keep up a naval establishment, was it not as well so to employ the men? The noble earl had not explained how he would proceed in protecting the revenue; but he could assure the noble earl, that if seamen were not employed for this purpose, a large force, either of infantry or cavalry, must be kept on that part of the coast to prevent smuggling. The noble earl said, he did not think smuggling had been prevented; but at least it had been changed. It was now almost confined to the narrow part of the channel, where boats could cross, and by means of signals, collect a body of men to run, at a moment, any quantity of goods. It was this peculiarity which made it necessary to employ a large force on that part of the coast. The noble earl said, the persons employed were not seamen; in fact all the men engaged in that service, like all the rest of the seamen, were discharged every three years, and other men entered; but the noble earl would find, from the returns for which he had moved, that the principal part of these men were not landsmen. The noble earl supposed, probably, that the duty on spirits might be lowered; but if the duty on foreign spirits were lowered, it would, be necessary to lower the duty on spirits made at home; and, as far as that part of the country was concerned, with which he was most intimately connected, spirits were already as cheap as was beneficial either to the morality or the health of the people. Their lordships must make up their minds to place some coercion on the production of spirits, or the people of this country would be drugged with intoxicating poisons. In his opinion, it was not expedient to lower the duty on homemade spirits; and unless this were done, it was not possible to lower the duty on foreign spirits. Formerly much smuggling had been carried on, both on the western and eastern coasts, and on the western coast lives had been lost. Now, no such thing occurred, and smuggling and armed bands were heard of only about Hythe and its neighbourhood. This was a-strong proof of the efficiency of the preventive service in protecting the revenue. The noble earl would see, by referring to the amount of the duty levied on spirits for several years past, that he was mistaken in supposing that smuggling had not been by this system effectually checked.

The Earl of Liverpool

said, it was not so much from his official situation, as from his residing for a portion of the year in the neighbourhood of the coast, and witnessing the effects of the system, that he wished to say a few words on the subject. It was now twelve years since the preventive service had been established; and the circumstance brought under their lordships' notice was, he believed, the first accident which had happened. That had not been the consequence of any orders given, as had been mentioned by his noble friend; but was the act of an individual, and was, in fact, contrary to the general orders. One accident could be no argument against a system. Accidents occurred in every department of business; and even in those amusements to which some of their lordships devoted a part of every year. Their lordships must adopt one of three systems—they must employ a naval force, a military force, or they must lower the duties. As far as the two species of force were concerned, he should have thought that noble lords who in general displayed such a constitutional jealousy of the military, would have preferred the employment of seamen. As to owering the duties, he did not think that practicable; and if a sufficient revenue were not obtained by indirect, it must be got by direct taxation. The service had more effectually answered the object than had been expected. The noble earl said, that smuggling was not prevented; and allowing the correctness of the remark, though it was not correct to the full extent, still he should contend that it had been changed, and was now confined to the narrow part of the channel. In his own neighbourhood he could say that it had been nearly extinguished. It was perhaps, the highest praise he could give the distinguished officer, now no more, with whom the system had originated, that he had carried it into execution with so much mildness, that even in the neighbourhood where smuggling had been extinguished, he was generally beloved. He never had known an individual whose services had given more general satisfaction, or whose loss was more deeply regretted. He could not pay a higher tribute to any public officer, than to say that he had executed such arduous duties, in such a place, and among such men, as to give general satisfaction. He had no objection to the motion of the noble earl; but he had no doubt that he would find, when the returns were before their lordships, that the service was much more effectual than he now supposed. There must be occasional hardships with any system of police, whether it were military, constabulary, or naval; and these hardships and inconveniences were the price that was paid for its advantages.

The motion was agreed to.