HL Deb 19 September 1831 vol 7 cc129-34
The Duke of Richmond

said, he rose to move the commitment of a Bill having for its object a very extensive alteration in the Game-laws, which had recently passed the other House. After the many discussions which had taken place on this subject, both beyond and within those walls, he did not think, that it was necessary to detain their Lordships with many observations on the measure. He considered the Game-laws as they stood at present to be most unreasonable, unjust, arbitrary, and oppressive. They were bad in principle, and produced the most demoralizing effects. The first and greatest defect of those laws was, that the Legislature prevented the buying or selling of game, a principle which could not be supported either by the law of humanity or of nature. If those laws were bad in principle, they were worse in practice; because being unjust and oppressive, they were constantly violated, and the consequence was, that a general contempt for the laws of the realm was fostered and encouraged. The first object of the present measure was, to make that innocent in the eye of the law which was innocent in the eye of reason; and with that view it was proposed to do away all the enactments that prevented the sale of game, and to suffer it to be vended, subject only to such restrictions as appeared absolutely necessary. The second great defect of this code was, the unjust and oppressive character of the law of qualification. A person possessed of lands or tenements to the amount of 100,000l. a year, might be so situated as not to be qualified to kill game, while his son and heir enjoyed that privilege. The law was here, as in almost every other part, extremely unjust and oppressive; and, like all bad laws, they were inefficient to accomplish the purpose for which they were enacted. The system was also attended with this baneful consequence—it increased and heightened the feuds between the higher, the middle, and the lower classes. By the 22nd and 23rd of Charles 2nd, a penalty of 5l., or imprisonment for three months, was inflicted on any unqualified person for shooting at a hare or partridge. When an unfortunate labourer committed this offence, what was the consequence? He could not pay the fine; he was incarcerated, and his wife and children were cast upon the parish. What must be the feelings of that man, when he saw a neighbouring gentleman allow his younger sons and his friends to do that, they having no right to do it, for which he was punished? He might be told that a poacher was a very worthless and bad character. He did not stand up there to defend poachers, but to deprecate the law which impelled individuals to become poachers. The labourer knew, that legally he could not kill game, though it fed on his property; but he knew, also, that thousands in this capital would have game at their tables, and he felt that, by some means or other, the market must be supplied. The result was, that he became a poacher, and thus the laws gave to the poacher the monopoly of selling game. The labourer could not stand the temptation; it was too much for him. He violated the law, and after the first fatal step, he was too often hurried on, in his career of guilt and crime, till he finished a life of infamy on the scaffold, the victim of strong temptation. Would their Lordships believe, that in three years, from 1827 to 1830, 8,502 persons were, according to a document laid before the House of Commons, convicted of offences against the Game-laws in England and Wales, many of those individuals being under eighteen years of age? Some of these persons were transported for life, and some for seven or fourteen years. It appeared from the same document, that one-seventh of the whole criminal convictions in England and Wales, during the period to which he had referred, were on account of infractions of the Game-laws. Surely it was high time to make an effectual alteration in a code of laws which produced every species of misery. He would not now enter into the details of this measure, it would be better to defer that to a future stage of the Bill. He would only state, that the principle of the Bill was in perfect accordance with the principle of the British Constitution. He concluded by moving, that the House do resolve itself into a Committee on the Bill.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that he had invariably opposed bills of this nature, not because he approved of the existing laws, but because no bill which had ever been brought forward, not even the present, would effect the object which the noble Duke and others professed to have in view. By the Bill now before their Lordships, game was considered as property. This was a new principle. Heretofore, the right to kill game only had been treated as property. He thought that when their Lordships came to consider the Bill in Committee, they would be of opinion that it would not prevent the evils which had been complained of. The subject of complaint was the breach of the law; but the law would be broken as frequently after the Bill passed as it was now. The present Bill afforded greater facilities for the sale of game than any of the bills which had been rejected by their Lordships on former occasions. The killing of game formed the chief amusement of country gentlemen. It caused a large expenditure of money in the country, and afforded employment to thousands of people. This expenditure of money and employment of people would cease when gentlemen were deprived of the exclusive right of killing game, which they had possessed in this country for nearly 500 years. It was worthy of observation that in every country of Europe, except France, the gentry possessed the exclusive right of pursuing game. There was one defect in the enactment of the Bill before their Lordships, to which he begged to call the attention of the noble Duke. The Bill inflicted a penalty for trespass only. Now, if a tenant holding land on which the right of sporting had been reserved to the landlord, should kill game on that land, he did not see how he could be punished, because it was clear that the penalty could not be inflicted for trespass, for he had the right to go on the land. This was a point which required consideration.

The Duke of Richmond

said, that the clause to which the noble Duke referred should be altered.

The Duke of Wellington

resumed, and observed, that the Bill, if passed into a law, would come into operation at a most inconvenient time—namely, on the 20th of October, just in the middle of the shooting season.

Lord Wharncliffe

said, that having frequently brought the subject of the Gamelaws under the attention of Parliament, both in that and the other House, he was glad that the necessity of some alteration was at length generally acknowledged. The measure before the House, if it would not remove all the evils of the present system, would at least go a great way to remedy them. As long as there was property to be plundered, there would also be thieves; and as long as there was game there would be poachers. All that the Legislature could do was, to put the laws on such a footing, that there could be no suspicion of injustice, of partiality, or of monopoly on the part of the legislators; but he was desirous to see the law placed on such a reasonable footing as would remove all complaints of injustice and monopoly. The laws were now cruel and oppressive, because they operated partially, and for the benefit of one class of the community only. Although he was friendly to the Bill upon the whole, he did not approve of every part of it. He thought it proceeded upon a wrong principle in the first instance, in declaring that game belonged, not to the owner of the soil, but to the tenant holding the soil, except in cases of reservation. He thought, that the person who drew the Bill could not have been aware that the effect of this enactment would be, that for some time to come the landlords of nine-tenths of the soil would not possess the least power over game. The custom, which had originated, perhaps, in a feeling of feudal respect for the landlord, and by which he was now always allowed to sport over his tenant's land, would be destroyed by this Bill. Then, what was the punishment to the tenant, if he trespassed? He was fined; but he could not trespass on his own land. He was glad to hear, that the noble Duke would not oppose any reasonable alterations when the Bill should be in Committee. The noble Duke should have his hearty concurrence in endeavouring to place the law on a proper footing.

The Earl of Westmorland

was opposed to the Bill-not because he thought the present law good, but because he thought the Bill now introduced would make the matter worse. A noble Lord, on presenting a petition from a Political Union, had told them the other night, that that House should take care of its character. He thought it would be almost entirely lost if this Bill was passed; for, of all the acts of oppression of which he had heard, this was the worst. The principle of the Bill was, to abolish all distinctions; but, by the way in which it was framed, the gentlemen of the Political Union would be prevented from enjoying the sport, as well as the first Duke in the land. It might be imagined, that after the Bill passed any man might take his gun and shoot game wherever he found it. No such thing. In the first place, he must pay a pretty heavy duty for a license. Then, if he should put his foot on another man's land, he might be imprisoned for twenty-four hours, and afterwards fined two guineas. The people would not be much obliged to their Lordships for passing such a law as this. The general object of the Bill was, to abolish all ancient practice, and destroy the influence of the gentry throughout the country. He thought also, that it would operate to the advantage of large landed proprietors, and to the prejudice of small ones. For these reasons he would oppose the Bill.

Lord Suffield

thought this Bill a great benefit; as, by making game property, it would make the people understand what they could not comprehend under the present laws—that the illegal taking of game was a crime. He, therefore, gave his most hearty thanks to the Government for introducing the measure. Those statutes which noble Lords spoke of as qualifying, were, in fact, disqualifying statutes; for, before they were passed, every man was entitled to shoot game. The present laws, however, were a dead letter, because they did not receive the support of public opinion. The right of sporting might now be a matter of agreement between landlords and tenants, and both would be equally protected. He should heartily support the Bill.

Lord Tenterden

said, the present Game-laws were so bad, that he should be willing to support almost any Bill that went to alter them.

The Earl of Carnarvon

said, he objected to some of the details of this Bill, though he should approve of it, if it was likely to identify, with respect to game, the legal and the moral offence. He should not oppose the Bill going proforma through the Committee.

Lord Eldon

would not discuss the Bill till it had been considered in Committee, after which he should be prepared to give his opinion upon it.

The Duke of Richmond

observed, that as the law now stood, it was constantly violated, for there were many persons in the highest ranks of life who were not by law qualified to shoot game. Foreign Ambassadors were not; nor were many Irish and Scotch Peers qualified as to England; Peers' secondsons were also unqualified, and yet all these persons were in the daily habit of violating the law: the consequence of which was, that offences against the Game-laws were no where considered as crimes. He liked the trespass clause best of all in the Bill, for he thought that a man ought to be the acknowledged owner of his own land, so that he committed no nuisance upon his neighbour's.

The Bill went through a Committee—to be recommitted.

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