HL Deb 15 July 1831 vol 4 cc1308-11
The Marquis of Lansdown,

in moving the third reading of the Customs, &c., Oaths Abolition Bill, said, that he could not let it pass without shortly stating to the House the reasons which had induced the Government, after consulting the due preservation and security of the revenue, to propose such a measure to Parliament. The fact was, that the Acts of Parliament which had been passed of late years had increased, to an immense amount, the oaths connected with the collection of the revenue. That increase had contributed to diminish the reverence which should be attached to the ceremony of taking an oath, and effectually defeated, in many instances, the object for which those oaths were imposed, Their Lordships might perhaps be curious to learn the extent to which the taking of oaths had been increased by modern Acts of Parliament. In one single department of the Customs, there had been 10,000 oaths taken in the course of the last year; and in one department of the Excise, 12,000 oaths had been taken during the same period. After a deliberate consultation with the Boards of Customs and of Excise, and more especially with their respective solicitors, it was found, that it would be better for the interests and security of the revenue, as it certainly would be more in conformity with the feelings of every Christian and moral man, that several of those oaths should be abolished. By the present Bill, accordingly, it was proposed to abolish the greater number of them, and to substitute in their stead a declaration, with a penalty attached to the breaking of it. He remembered, some years ago, to have heard the late Mr. Windham say, in the House of Commons, that his opinion of oaths had been lessened since he found that they could never walk alone, but that they must always be accompanied by a penalty. The present Bill repealed eighty or ninety classes of oaths connected with the Customs, and though it was found necessary to retain a great proportion of the oaths connected with the Excise, nearly a similar amount had been repealed of those which had been imposed with a view to the collection of that portion of the public revenue. The noble Marquis concluded by moving the third reading of the Bill.

The Bishop of London

felt it his duty, as a minister of religion, to express the pleasure he experienced in seeing such a Bill passed, and he thought, that great thanks were due to his Majesty's Ministers for bringing forward such a measure as this. The practice of taking oaths upon the most trivial occasions, and in reference to the most trivial matters, had grown up to a lamentable extent of late; and the direct tendency of such a practice was, to lessen, amongst the lower orders especially, the reverence which should be always attached to the ceremony of taking an oath. It was on that principle that the Author of our religion had prohibited the use of oaths, and though that prohibition might be limited so as to justify the taking of oaths on important occasions, and in reference to important matters, it could not be limited so as to justify the taking of oaths to the extent to which it had been carried by the legislative enactments in this country. He trusted that this was the beginning of a reform on this subject. There were several branches connected with our judicial and municipal departments, in which the taking of oaths might be advantageously dispensed with. There was no person who had acted as a Magistrate, or who had attended in a Court of Justice, but who must have lamented the number of unnecessary oaths connected with our legal proceedings, and the unceremonious manner in which they were administered. On public grounds such a practice was much to be deplored. He regretted, that it had become customary with Magistrates, particularly in this metropolis, to administer oaths and affidavits upon the most trivial occasions, and in reference to the most trivial matters. There was not a wall which they might not see placarded with affidavits, sworn before some of the Magistrates in the City, specifying either the number of stamps distributed by a newspaper, or the quantity of a quack medicine which had been disposed of. He doubted whether such affidavits could be legally administered; but whether the fact were so or not, it was not right on the part of any Magistrate to administer them. He trusted, that his Majesty's Government would follow up this measure, and diminish, as far as possible, the number of oaths required to be taken or administered by the Magistrates.

Lord Wynford

quite concurred with the right rev. Prelate in condemning the application of oaths to trivial circumstances, and on trivial occasions, and he could state, that the illegality of such affidavits as the right rev. Prelate had referred to, when taken before Magistrates, had been determined by the Court of King's Bench, three or four years ago. He was happy to see such a measure as this brought forward, and he trusted, that a diminution would be made in the number of oaths connected with law proceedings. To make oaths in Courts of Justice an effective security for life and property, the ceremony of taking them should be rendered solemn, and they should not be taken more frequently, than was absolutely necessary. He joined in the praise which had been bestowed by the right rev. Prelate on his Majesty's Ministers for introducing this measure. He thought, however, that the penalty attached to the breaking of the declaration should not be made a fixed sum of 100l. That was not a sufficient protection in cases where a greater sum might be secured by a fraudulent or false statement. The penalty, therefore, should bear some proportion to the probable gain of making a false declaration.

Lord King

remarked, that the best way to prevent the taking of the oaths before Magistrates, to which the right rev. Pre- late alluded, would be, to abolish the fees paid on such occasions. If the Magistrate's clerk did not expect a fee, he would not be so ready to bring persons on the Table to take oaths of such a description.

The Marquis of Lansdown

said, that the penalty of 100l., which was specified by the Bill, had been thought sufficient by the Boards of Customs and Excise. If it should be found inadequate, Parliament could increase it hereafter.

Bill read a third time, and passed.