HL Deb 11 June 1839 vol 48 cc134-7
The Duke of Beaufort

wished to receive some information with regard to a circular letter that had been lately addressed by the Secretary of State for the Home Department to the Lords-lieutenant of certain counties, on the subject of allowing individuals to arm for the protection of property. It appeared to him that the meaning of that letter was very imperfectly understood in the country, and that some explanation with reference to it was necessary. Their Lordships were probably aware that a communication had been made by a body denominating themselves "the Salford Radical Association" to the Lord-lieutenant of the county of Lancaster, calling on him to supply them with 1,200 stand of arms, in consequence of the circular to which he had alluded. An application of the same nature had also been made from Bath, which communication he should read to their Lordships. The noble Duke read the communication, which, in effect, stated, that" certain householders of Bath, having volunteered their services for the protection of life and property, requested to be supplied with arms." He had himself received several applications from persons who wished to arm in this manner; but he had advised them not, because, in his opinion, nothing could be worse than for bodies of men to enrol and to arm themselves in this manner, without being placed under any regular military control. Such associations were, he was convinced, calculated to do more mischief than good. He had no doubt that it never was the intention of Government to encourage assemblies of this kind; but it would seem, from these applications, that the intention of Government was misunderstood. These sort of meetings of individuals for the protection of life and property might become very dangerous, unless they were placed under efficient military control.

Viscount Melbourne

entirely agreed in the general principle laid down by the noble Duke—that it was not proper or expedient for any body of men to assemble and arm themselves unless under the control of some person bearing her Majesty's commission. That principle could not, however, be applied to all cases. It might be necessary, on some particular occasions, when great danger was apprehended, to depart from the strict principle. With respect to the case referred to by the noble Duke, his (Lord Melbourne's) noble Friend, the Secretary for the Home Department, in consequence of the menacing appearance which many parts of the country had assumed, had deemed it necessary to transmit a circular to the Lords-lieutenant of certain counties where the danger seemed to be most threatening, and where the greatest apprehension prevailed. In that circular the Lords-lieutenant were allowed, on their responsibility, to accept the services of any body of men who they might think proper to be employed for the preservation of the public peace, and who they conceived might be intrusted with arms. Reliance was placed on their prudence in ascertaining the respectability and general good conduct of those who might be so em- ployed. To that extent only the circular of his noble Friend proceeded. He trusted that it would not be necessary to act on it to a greater extent than it had already been acted on, and that it would not be drawn into precedent beyond the immediate occasion.

The Duke of Wellington

was not one of those Lords-lieutenant to whom the circular in question had been addressed, but he should be glad to see it, as well as any instructions which might have been issued at the same time in order to render it efficient. Two or three things struck him on this subject, on which he wished to ask a question. He requested to know whether the noble Viscount, in what he had stated, had or had not adverted to the powers given to magistrates by certain acts of the late King's reign, empowering them to swear in special constables—whether that was the class of persons whom it was the intention of the Government to arm under the instructions given by the Secretary of State? If that were the case he could understand it. He should now state another question which he wished to ask. He understood, that under the act for regulating corporations, which was passed in 1835, and was much discussed in that House, powers were given to those corporations to form a police, they were enabled to raise funds to maintain that police, and the acts to which he referred also empowered them, if necessary, to raise a body of men to keep watch and ward. Now, he wished to know whether these were the people intended to be armed, under the circular, as a constitutional safeguard? What had been stated to their Lordships just now showed the enormous power which was granted by this circular, and showed also how dangerously it might operate. Suppose, this year, the mayor of a town, holding particular opinions, allowed one portion of the inhabitants to arm, when he was turned out of office, in the following November, he might be succeeded by another mayor, holding the opinions of a different party, which party, in his turn, he would permit to bear arms; might not, in such a case, very serious consequences arise from such a system? The mayor of Bath might, for instance, arm one party this day, and, in the course of a few months, another mayor might arm another party of very different principles. This point, in his opinion, afforded matter for serious consideration. He conceived, that Government ought to let their Lordships know what instructions Lords-lieutenant were directed to give to magistrates for the purpose of carrying into effect the intentions of the Secretary of State.

Viscount Melbourne

said, he had no objection to lay on the Table the circular and any papers connected with it. As to the question of the noble Duke, he had no hesitation in stating, that it was not the intention of the Government to employ the persons to whom he had alluded. They did not contemplate arming either the police or the constables. It was, however, in the power of the corporations and magistrates to employ them, if they thought proper.

The Duke of Wellington

was aware that it was in the power of the corporations to arm the police. He begged leave, however, to say, that if they did so, they became responsible to the law for their act. But if bodies armed under this circular, that certainly would be a proceeding of a very peculiar nature, for which nobody at all would be responsible. As he had before observed, the Mayor of Bath this year might think proper to arm 1,000 men, and in the month of November a gentleman of another party having come into office, might arm 1,000 other persons of his party. Thus a very dangerous state of things might arise.

Lord Ellenborough

said, he understood that two circulars had been issued; under one circular, arms might be supplied to persons for the protection of property; whilst, by the other, the magistrates were directed to prevent persons from assembling for the purpose of military exercise. Now, it happened, that under the first circular, certain persons procured arms, and proceeded to train themselves in their use; but those very parties who had taken arms under the first circular, were informed against under the second, were arrested, and were called on to find bail. So much for the uniformity of the sytem.

Lord Portman

could assure his noble Friend that no disposition existed in Bath to take any improper advantage of the power granted by the circular. If any such disposition should appear, he could assure the noble Duke that the magistrates would speedily put an end to it.

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