HL Deb 05 August 1845 vol 82 cc1424-31
The Lord Chancellor

presented a petition from the Liverpool Guardian Society for the Protection of Trade, which stated that their society consisted of 1,800 members, comprising merchants, bankers, and traders, but chiefly the latter class, associated together for the protection of commerce, and that they were most anxious that the Bill which had been introduced into their Lordships' House for extending the law for the recovery of Small Debts should be passed into law. He had also a petition to present from a number of persons who were deputies, at present assembled in this metropolis, from all the great trading towns and cities of the country, praying their Lordships to pass this Bill in its present shape, and particularly directing their Lordships' attention to the 9th Clause, and the clauses consequential upon it. It was necessary that, in introducing this Bill in its present shape to the notice of their Lordships' House, he should offer a few remarks respecting it. Their Lordships were aware, that in the last Session of Parliament a Bill had passed into law for abolishing arrest, even in execution, for debts under 20l. He had always considered that measure as a most salutary law, and it never had been, he believed, the desire of either House of Parliament that it should be revoked. In consequence of inconveniences which were found to arise since the passing of that law in respect of the recovery of debts under 20l., a Bill had been introduced in the present Session by a noble and learned Friend of his (Lord Brougham), now absent, for the purpose of extending the facilities of the former Bill to debts of a lower amount. That Bill had been referred to a Select Committee up-stairs, before whom it had undergone a careful examination, and after being again brought before the House their Lordships adopted it. It then went down to the other House of Parliament, where many Amendments were introduced, and the Bill so amended now came before their Lordships for their final decision on these Amendments. He would next proceed to explain to their Lordships the nature and character of these amendments. They were of a twofold character—one class referred distinctly, and in the ordinary course, to the Bill as it had left their Lordships' House; and the Amendments under this head ought, he thought, with one exception, to be agreed to by the House. The other class of Amendments were to be regarded, in point of fact, as additions to the Bill. On leaving their Lordships' House the Bill had eight clauses, but it had since received an addition of about twenty clauses, referring to objects to which he would presently direct their Lordships' attention. The first class of Amendments in the original Bill seemed to be principally verbal amendments with one exception. He proposed to make some alterations in these Amendments, to only one of which he would beg to call their Lordships' attention. A power had been given to the Commissioners of Bankruptcy to call before them persons who were indebted in sums less than 20l., in order to examine them, to sift their conduct, and ultimately, if dissatisfied with the explanation given, to commit them to prison. The same power had been given to the Small Debts Courts, which were presided over by a barrister or attorney of ten years' standing, or by a special pleader. Now, the Amendment of the Commons to which he objected was, that the Commissioners of Bankruptcy, whom he considered to be altogether the most competent persons to decide on subjects of this nature, were to be deprived of the power conferred under the Bill, except where an action of debt had been brought for the amount in one of the superior courts, and judgment pronounced. As he did not anticipate that any person having ordinary judgment and understanding would in future bring actions for debts of less than 20l. in the superior courts, he considered that the effect of this Amendment would be, that the Bankruptcy Commissioners, whom he should regard as the most competent parties to decide in such matters, would lose all jurisdiction under the Bill. He would therefore propose to their Lordships to disagree to this Amendment. The history of the Amendment was not a little curious. When the Bill was sent down to the other House of Parliament, it had been entrusted to the charge of the present Solicitor General; but when that hon. and learned Member had been called out of town in the pursuit of his professional duties, the Amendment was introduced, he did not know by whom, or from what quarter, and adopted. With respect to the other class of Amendments, they all turned on the effect of the 9th Section, which had been introduced by the House of Commons, and were, so to say, consequential upon it. That section gave a power to Her Majesty in Council to extend the jurisdiction in point of locality of the Small Debts Courts, and also to extend their jurisdiction in point of amount to all sums up to 20l. It proceeded farther, and went on to provide that Her Majesty in Council should have the power of contracting the jurisdiction of Small Debts Courts, where such jurisdiction interfered with that of another court. As no person in trade of ordinary prudence and judgment would now bring an action in one of the superior courts for a debt under 20l., this provision might be regarded as a necessary consequence of the Act of last Session. He thought, therefore, that that 9th Clause was a wise provision, and that it had been properly framed; and if it had been introduced while the Bill had been in their Lordships' House, he would have given it his warm support; or if it had come up from the other House as a separate Bill, he had no doubt whatever but that their Lordships would have agreed to it. The other eighteen or nineteen new clauses he regarded as necessarily consequent upon this clause; and therefore, if their Lordships had no objection to the adoption of the new principle contained in the 9th Clause, he should recommend them to adopt all these Amendments. They established a new system and new tribunals; and the question for their Lordships' consideration was, whether a provision for establishing this new system and these new tribunals could be agreed to by the House in one stage, and after one discussion. It was certainly inconsistent with the ordinary Parliamentary usage to adopt the principle of a measure, and to consider all its details at the same time. If the other House of Parliament had sent up a separate Bill on this subject, their Lordships would have an opportunity of deciding on the principle of the measure at the second reading, and of afterwards considering the details in Committee, and on the bringing up of the Report; and they could then finally adopt or reject the Bill, after the most mature deliberation. They had no such opportunity at present, and they should, therefore, consider whether, on one discussion on these Amendments, they could venture to adopt them. He thought the Amendments were, as he before stated, useful, and called for by the circumstances; and a point which was, perhaps, not altogether an unimportant one for their consideration was, that in the Session before the last their Lordships had themselves passed a Bill for the establishment of local Courts, which had been sent down to the other House of Parliament, and which contained a clause exactly corresponding with this Amendment. His noble Friend near him (Lord Wharncliffe) had just called his attention to another Amendment which was made in the provision for levying executions under decrees made in cases of Small Debts. It was known to their Lordships that there were always exceptions of wearing apparel and some other like necessary matters; but the Commons' Amendment in the present instance excepted bedding, wearing apparel, and such necessaries, and all tools used in the trade of the debtor, and also other articles to the extent of 10l. He apprehended that that exception would include all the property of a large portion of the class of persons who would be most interested in this Bill; and he was induced to come to that conclusion the more readily, as he had seen advertisements in the newspapers, in which persons about to marry were offered all the furniture necessary for a room for 10l. He would leave it to their Lordships to decide whether they would not agree to these Amendments with the alterations which he had suggested in them.

Lord Campbell

said, he felt himself placed in a state of very great embarrassment on this occasion, in consequence of the want of unanimity which appeared to exist among the Members of Her Majesty's Government in the two Houses of Parliament. He entirely concurred in the view taken by his noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack, respecting the Amendments of the Commons, and the alterations which it was necessary to have made in them. He thought these Amendments to their Lordships' Bill could be safely adopted, with the exception to which his noble and learned Friend had referred; but then came the new Bill which the Commons had added to the measure, and with respect to that he felt, though he would not take upon himself the responsibility of rejecting it, that it was impossible to consider it fully and satisfactorily on the present occasion. He should, however, enter his solemn protest against the course that had been adopted. Various petitions had been presented on this subject in the early part of the Session, and two grievances in particular pointed out. One of these was the absence of any means of examining into the nature of debts under 20l., and the other referred to debtors enjoying salaries and annuities, and to the fact of there being no means of compelling such persons to pay their debts out of these funds. Her Majesty's Government in this House appointed a Select Committee to take the matter into consideration. That Committee had been attended generally by his noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack, and by his other noble and learned Friend not now present (Lord Brougham), who seemed to act as the organ of the Government on the occasion. The result was, that remedies for these evils were pointed out, and the Bill which had passed their Lordships' House was founded upon the decision to which the Committee had come. Her Majesty's Government had entirely approved of the Bill, and had intimated that nothing more ought to be done during the present Session. When the Bill, however, went down to the House of Commons, Her Majesty's Government there, as he had been informed, took an entirely different view of the matter; and the Solicitor General, under the auspices, as he had heard, of the Home Secretary, introduced no less than twenty new clauses, involving one of the most important questions that had passed through Parliament within the present Session. His noble and learned Friend admitted that the usages, and the rights and privileges of their Lordships' House, required that these new clauses should have been introduced as a distinct measure; and that they would be, therefore, justified in rejecting them. This was not, however, the only instance during the present Session in which the House had reason to regret that a better understanding did not exist between the Members of Her Majesty's Government in that and in the other House of Parliament. For instance, a Bill had passed their Lordships' House to prevent tollhouses in Scotland being licensed for the sale of intoxicating drinks. That measure had been supported by all the Members of Her Majesty's Government in this House; but when it had got to the other House of Parliament, the whole of the Members of Her Majesty's Government there, with the Prime Minister at their head, voted against it; and the Bill was thus lost. Another instance of a similar kind was to be found in the fate of the Bill which had been introduced for abolishing deodands. That Bill had been highly praised by his noble and learned Friend on the Woolsack, who had given Her Majesty's consent for its introduction. It had been passed through their Lordships' House, without even a whisper of disapprobation against it, and with the unanimous support of the Members of Her Majesty's Government in this House. The Bill had been subsequently lost on a point of form in the other House; but a similar measure had been immediately afterwards introduced in the Commons' House of Parliament for abolishing deodands. Precisely the same principle was involved in the second Bill as in the first; and yet, while the Bill met with the unanimous support of the Members of Her Majesty's Government in their Lordships' House, it was unanimously opposed by Her Majesty's Government in the Commons' House of Parliament. He alluded to these matters as instances in which the Parliament and the public suffered in consequence of no understanding existing between the Members of Her Majesty's Government in the two Houses. He regretted that the opinion of his noble and learned Friend (the Lord Chancellor) was not more attended to by his Colleagues in matters of legal reference, and more especially by the Secretary of State for the Home Department. With respect to the measure now before the House, it was a mockery to oblige a person to sue in the Court of Queen's Bench or Exchequer for a debt under 20l.; but he doubted whether it would not be better to remodel local courts, or extend the county courts, rather than give more power to the courts of conscience, which were often the cause of great vexation and abuse.

The Lord Chancellor

begged to explain one circumstance. This was not a Government measure. When it went down to the other House of Parliament, it was taken up by a learned Gentleman who was not at that time Solicitor General. [Lord Campbell: He was about to be.] It was before he knew he would be; and it would not have been consistent if, on account of his change of position, he had abandoned the measure. He admitted, however, that on its going down from that to the other House, although it was not a Government measure, it was deemed wise and proper, and as such was supported. With reference to the Deodand Bill, it was not considered a Government measure; he, for one, supported it; but it was open to any other Member of the Government to oppose it. It went down to the other House connected with another measure; that other measure was rejected, and the Deodand Bill, as he apprehended, was on that account rejected also. He wished also to say, that he had added an Amendment to the 9th Clause; he thought it right that parties who would be affected should have notice of any change, and it was, therefore, to be advertised for a month in the London Gazette before it was made.

The Earl of Haddington

said, that he and his noble Friends near him took part in the Turnpike Trusts Bill as private country gentlemen connected with Scotland, and not as Members of the Government.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that as precedents were important, he would remind noble Lords of one little point. He thought he recollected sending down a Bill from that House to the other House with forty or fifty new clauses and amendments—he alluded to the Municipal Act Amendment Bill—which the other House very kindly adopted.

Lord Monteagle

said, he regarded this matter as affording a very bad precedent. He, however, thought it better, under all the circumstances, to adopt the course recommended by his noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor.

Lord Wharncliffe

conceived that this was no Government Bill, and it was well to express their disapprobation of the circumstance that, when a Bill of eight clauses was sent down, one of twenty-five clauses should be sent up; in fact, a new Bill, which that House could not discuss on one occasion only. Still, under all the circumstances of this case, and after the explanation that had been given, he was not disposed to vote against this Bill, though he held himself as much at liberty to vote against it as against any Railway Bill that had come before them.

Earl Fitzhardinge

expressed his gratification that Amendments which were calculated to afford so much benefit to the community had met with the approbation of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack. No less than 3,000,000l. of debts under 20l. had been contracted to tradesmen in this country; and in Birmingham alone the debts under 20l. in one year amounted to 100,000l. The passing of this measure would give relief to those classes which it was impossible for them to obtain in any other manner.

Lord Campbell

explained. He was perfectly well aware of the distinction respecting Government Bills; but what he complained of was, that measures which were formally not Government Bills should be strenuously advocated and supported by all the Members of Her Majesty's Government in one House, and as strenuously opposed by the Members of the Government in the other House of Parliament. He was sorry that his noble and learned Friend should have referred to the precedent he had cited. He had hoped that his noble and learned Friend had repented of the acts to which he had alluded, and he regretted to find that such was not the case. He very well remembered that, on the occasion alluded to, the noble and learned Lord was regarded as a giant of obstruction to all measures coming before their Lordships' House.

Commons' Amendments agreed to.

House adjourned.