HL Deb 15 August 1839 vol 50 cc286-94

Viscount Duncannon moved the second reading of the Birmingham Police Bill (No. 2). In consequence of some difficulties connected with the charter that had been granted to the town of Birmingham, the corporation were unable to establish an efficient police, which was so essential to the preservation of the peace of the town, and this bill was to enable the Treasury to advance to the corporation of Birmingham, the sum of 10,000/l., for the establishment of a police force. He believed that the only part of the bill that was objected to, was that part which vested the appointment of the commissioner of police in the Government, as was the case with the metropolitan police of London. It was the opinion of the Government, that it was essentially necessary for the preservation of the peace of the town of Birmingham, that the police force should be placed on that footing, and he hoped, therefore, that their Lordships would approve of the principle of the bill, making such alterations as should be thought proper in committee.

Lord Brougham

could not agree to the proposition of the noble Viscount, without entering his protest against it. The noble Viscount had not laid sufficient grounds for undoing by one act, what Government had themselves done by a preceding Act of Parliament. The last act of Government was one of confidence in the town-council of Birmingham, for which purpose they availed themselves of all the powers given by their own Municipal Corporations Act. If, then, in the month of October, 1838, the town of Birmingham —that great, important, and populous town—was so well deserving of the confidence of Government, that Government incorporated it, gave it municipal institutions, permitted it to choose its own magistrates, and enabled it to enjoy the very important privilege of voting in wards for those who had to administer justice within so vast a circuit, he did not see that any case had been made out for altering their course of proceeding, for entirely retracing the steps of Government, for undoing in August, 1839, what they had done in October, 1838, for stamping the town of Birmingham as unworihy of confidence, and for stigmatising the people of Birmingham as being unfit to be entrusted with the management of their own concerns, in a matter the most important, namely, the arrangement of the police establishment, and the superintendence of the Queen's peace. The main principle of the Municipal Corporations Act, was to establish corporations for police purposes. But for such purposes that Act would have been entirely unnecessary; and yet now, before they had given that Act a trial, before it had been found ineffective or inoperative, they were called upon totally to undo what they had before done. The town of Birmingham was to have the name of a corporation without the reality. It was to have a town-council; but functions they were to have none. The people of Birmingham were to be allowed to establish a body to superintend the police; but at the same time the persons so chosen by their fellow citizens were not to be allowed to have the superintendence of the police; they were, in fact, told that they were not fit for any of those things for which they were created, and that they were not to exercise those powers, for the purpose of exercising which powers alone, they were called into existence. He had never before heard of an attempt to abolish a corporation, unless they were abusers or non-users of their functions. What charge was brought against this corporation? Why their petition, which had been presented that evening, stated very truly and very properly, and he might say very eloquently, that not only were they not convicted, but they were not accused. If a charge were brought against individuals of the corporation, that was no reason whatever for saying that the whole corporate body had incurred forfeiture. Some objection had been taken to the course adopted by a worthy friend of his, the mayor of Birmingham, but he must say, that he saw no reason whatever for that objection. Another excellent friend of his, a medical gentleman, and a member of the corporation, was charged with an error of judgment in hesitating to act without the presence of the chief magistrate; but even if there had been an error of judgment, was that a reason why the whole corporation should suffer? But the matter was now made the subject of inquiry; they were told that an investigation was going on, so that still it was doubtful, whether there was any charge or not against the corporation, and this bill was to interrupt the inquiry, and to interfere with the trial; and before the inquiry was even begun, and when it was only pending, they were called upon to act as if the inquiry had been gone through, and as if sentence had been pronounced against the parties who were put upon their trial. He would ask whether the inquiry could be fair after this? Would it be fair in the case of a military officer, that the Crown should stigmatize him before the court-martial had come to a decision? He had to add that there was no charge against the town as a corporate body. And whom were they called upon to stigmatize? Not the corporate body merely, but in reality the whole of the inhabitants, who had by au immense majority chosen the town-council, He knew it might be said, and he agreed in saying, that the choice of one or two of the magistrates was not very felicitous. He thought there were one or two who ought never to have been appointed. But what had the town-council to do with this? The justices might have done ill, but the town-council was a different body. His objection to one or two of these justices, was not that they were not worthy and loyal men, or that he had the least doubt that they would exert themselves strenuously to preserve the public peace. Quite the contrary: he thought their appointment objectionable, because they might be induced to exert themselves more strenuously than was necessary, from a feeling that they laboured under a suspicion of not being disposed so to act; but his chief objection was, that people would not believe that they would exercise the powers entrusted to them, and he therefore thought it unwise to appoint men who, not being supposed to be likely to exercise their functions vigorously, would hold out a kind of temptation to seduce persons into those depredations and outrages that had unhappily been committed. But that objection applies at the utmost' only to two of those appointments. And he would ask, was it common fairness to stigmatize and disfranchise the town of Birmingham, because one or two persons had been appointed justices who ought not to have been appointed 1—those appointments having been made by the veiy parties who were the authors of the present bill. First they appointed a corporation, and, before the municipal body had done anything, they appointed certain municipal officers justices, and then, because they themselves appointed justices who ought not to be appointed, they, the same Government, now wanted to take away the charter which they themselves had granted. Upon these grounds, he thought that nothing was more unfair, or more inconsiderate, than any attempt of this kind; and this being his opinion, he felt it his bounden duty to resist the second reading of this bill. One thing was perfectly certain, that if this bill passed, they could not stop here, they would be absolutely bound to pass all the other bills of the same sort that might come at that late period of the Session from the other House of Parliament. The Manchester Bill, and the Bolton Bill, must be passed in the same way, if they were now to decide previously to inquiry, before trial, that the corporation of Birmingham had misdemeaned itself, which it certainly had not done. He thought, that the effect of this bill would be to keep alive, or rather to revive those discords that had happily ceased, and to revive and perpetuate those cruel dissensions, the result of which had been a breach of the peace, which all good men and loyal subjects must chiefly lament. It was perfectly clear, that if this bill were so altered as to give power to the proper quarter, thus showing that confidence which had not been forfeited, and that respect which was fully deserved by the town-council, he believed that that peace which had now been restored would be perpetuated in the town, but if, on the contrary, they condemned without trial, if they disfranchised those whom they had so lately enfranchised, if they stigmatized those whom a few months ago they delighted to honour, and all this without a shadow of pretence, except that the Government who brought in a good bill one day, chose to change their views the next—if they took this course, he was morally certain, he was intimately persuaded from all he knew of that place, and of the people in general, that they would widen the breach—that they would render these dissentions that lately existed hardly curable—that they would sow the seeds of future discord broadcast over the town, and the youngest among their Lordships might not live to see the end of those dissensions, and the appeasing of those discords. He moved that the bill be read a second time that day three months.

Viscount Melbourne

agreed with the noble and learned Lord, that they were placed in a very unsatisfactory state of circumstances; but at the same time the question they had to consider was, whether this bill were necessary or not? He should have been much more happy, much better satisfied, if the corporation of Birmingham, which it was said the present Government had established, had been enabled to use the powers which were in. tended to be given to them. He certainly should have been much better satisfied if the corporation had been acquiesced in by the whole town of Birmingham, and if it had commanded the confidence of the whole of the inhabitants, if no legal objection had been taken to their constitution, and if they had been allowed to perform those functions for which they were intended and appointed. But that, unfortunately, was not the case. The noble and learned Lord, in opposing this bill, relied upon the certainty of the tranquillity of the town of Birmingham. All numerous bodies were very apt to get pretty rapid impressions of things. The impression of their Lordships minds some time ago, as to the state of Birmingham, was pretty strong and vivid, and he should have apprehended at that time, that there would not be the slightest difference of opinion as to this bill, and that there could not be a difference of opinion in respect to the propriety, and, indeed, necessity, of taking measures for the establishment of an efficient police in the town of Birmingham. After what they had seen, after what had so recently taken place, and with the ill-feeling that seemed to prevail in a great part of that town, he could hardly believe it possible, that tranquillity had been so completely and en- tirely restored as to be, according to the noble and learned Lord, much more certain and fixed than ever, or that the people were united in a degree of harmony and concord much greater than any that existed before the late tumult. If that were true, certainly this tumult was the most fortunate and auspicious that possibly could be. But the real fact was, that the legal constitution of the corporation was impugned at law, and they had not the power of taking those steps that were necessary for raising a police force. They bad not the means of doing it. They could not raise a rate, as the rate would not be paid. And even if it were paid, the overseers would not feel themselves sufficiently justified in paying the money over to the town-council. Therefore it was, that this bill was absolutely necessary to supply the deficiency of authority, and to take immediate measures for the preservation of the peace, and the maintenance of order in the town of Birmingham. This bill cast no stigma upon any body or individual, it interfered with no trial, it interrupted no inquiry, it had none of those defects which had been attributed to it by the noble and learned Lord, it was merely a bill which they considered that the present state of circumstances rendered necessary for the purpose of maintaining peace and order in Birmingham, and of securing that tranquillity which had recently been so seriously disturbed. The noble and learned Lord said, that they sought to pass this bill, in order to remedy their own appointment of magistrates. In the first place, the bill had nothing to do with the appointment of magistrates; and, in the next place, the noble and learned Lord assumed and took for granted, that persons had been appointed who ought not to have been appointed. The noble and learned Lord said, respecting the conduct of those magistrates, that persons who had taken a leading part in politics, were likely to distinguish themselves by great anxiety, and an over desire to maintain the public peace. He did not know whether the opinion of the noble and learned Lord had been realised precisely to that extent; but a noble Earl, who was not now present, the Lord-lieutenant of the county of Warwick (the Earl of Warwick), told them, that unquestionably those gentlemen, whose names had been already mentioned, and whom he would not men-on again, had been as ready, as firm, as energetic, and had taken as much share of the duty of preserving the public peace, as any other of the magistrates. But this bill had nothing whatever to do with the appointment of the magistrates; it cast no stigma upon the corporation, or upon the town of Birmingham; but the unfortunate circumstances of that town, and the jealousies that existed there, made it necessary that a police should be established, and, with the present feeling of the people of Birmingham, he put it to their Lordships, whether that police ought not rather to be established under an independent and impartial authority, than under the authority of the corporation?

The Duke of Wellington

said, he could not concur with the noble and learned Lord, in thinking that what had lately happened in Birmingham was likely to heal the dissensions, or to minister to the re-establishment of the peace of that town. He was afraid it would have a contrary effect. It appeared to him, that this bill was necessary in consequence of the disturbances which had prevailed in Birmingham, and in consequence of the state of the question depending in a court of law, respecting the legality of the grant of the charter to the town of Birmingham. He believed that that charter had been granted with great precipitation, and the consequence was, that the corporation had not the power of levying a rate to support a police force. That question was now under consideration in a court of justice, and would not be decided till November next, or possibly later, and it might be decided against the legality of the charter. In the meantime, it appeared absolutely necessary that there should be some power of regulating the police, and if care were not taken to establish a power to regulate the police by this bill, the town would be again left without a police as before. He considered, therefore, that this bill was the necessary consequence of the state of the question regarding the charter. He begged to remind the noble and learned Lord, that the Crown, having granted the charter, could not deprive the town of Birmingham of that charter. The inquiry must go through its regular course, and care must be taken to provide for all the consequences that might arise, either from the establishment of the charter, or from the decision of the court of law, that the charter was illegal. He believed that the present bill provided for both those consequences. With respect to the other question that had been adverted to by the noble and learned Lord, namely, the appointment of the bench of justices, that appointment was another consequence of the grant of this charter, which is now questioned, and stated to be illegal. The Government thought proper, not in October, but in January last, to grant sessions of the peace to the town of Birmingham, and to the corporation of that town; and having granted these sessions of the peace, a noble Lord, in another place, recommended certain persons to be appointed justices of the peace of that town. That noble Lord was responsible for the selection of those justices; but if it should be found that this charter had been illegally granted, it would follow that the grant of the sessions of the peace was also illegal. It would also follow, he believed, that this commission of the peace could no longer exist, and all those gentlemen, who were thus appointed under the commission of the peace, would not be qualified to act as justices of the peace, when they were no longer justices of the peace of the sessions of the corporation of Birmingham. He believed that their Lordships would find this to be the case, and this circumstance rendered it still more important that care should be taken by this bill that there should be a commissioner to take charge of this police, who should be totally independent of the charter, and of the justices appointed under the charter, and in consequence of the charter. He thought it a very improper act to appoint these sessions at the time the grant was made. The Chartists were then embodied, and moving about the country, namely, in October, and he certainly agreed with the noble and learned Lord, that those who might be supposed to partake of the political sentiments of those persons, ought not at that time to have been appointed justices, under the commission for the corporation of Birmingham. There was another very curious circumstance attending this commission of the peace of Birmingham, which showed the haste and want of consideration with which all those arrangements had been carried into execution, and of which the public had seen the consequence. The opinion of some noble Lords of great authority, had been given on the point, whether the magistrates of the county of Warwick had or had not jurisdiction in the corporation of Birmingham, after that corporation had been established, and the sessions of the peace had been granted. It now appeared to be the decided opinion, that the magistrates of the county of Warwick had, and ought to have had from the commencement, jurisdiction within the corporation of Birmingham. But how was it that persons had considered it right to grant a sessions of the peace, and that under the circumstances the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, should interfere, contrary to the intentions of Parliament, and grant to ten or twelve of the magistrates of the county of Warwick, that their names should be inserted in the commission of the peace for the corporation of Birmingham, which corporation it was now understood by all the great legal authorities, to have had no jurisdiction during the whole of the period? After this, to suppose that confidence could be placed in those by whom such things had been transacted, was a matter of impossibility. He could not have any such confidence, and all, therefore, he could say was this: That he was most desirous that there should be a police in Birmingham, for the purpose of saving it from such misfortunes as had occurred lately, and, therefore, he must vote for this bill, in order to give a police to the town, and, at the same time, to be quite certain that it should be in the hands of some one, who would manage and conduct it for the benefit of the community.

Lord Brougham

stated, that, as the Government pressed, and as the noble Duke supported this bill, he should not press his motion, but reserve the further objections he had to this measure for the Committee.

Bill read a second time.

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