HL Deb 17 February 1845 vol 77 cc526-8
Lord Beaumont

rose to put a question to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, relative to the Penal Laws which affect Her Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects, and at the same time for the purpose of inquiring what course it was the intention of the Government to take in legislating upon that subject. It would be in the recollection of the House that during the course of the debate which took place last year upon the state of those Penal Laws, the noble and learned Lord gave a promise that in the present year that important question should be taken into consideration by the Government, and brought under the notice of Parliament. It would be also in the recollection of the House that the Criminal Law Commissioners had adverted to the subject in their sixth Report; and he need scarcely remind the House that the Bill which he (Lord Beaumont) introduced last year had been considerably curtailed or amended by the learned Lord, on the understanding that the recommendations contained in that Report should be more fully carrried out by a Government measure in this Session. He would, however, state the extent the parties principally concerned carried their expectations: they now expected, upon every rational ground, that all Acts of Parliament which imposed pains and penalties on the ground of religion should be repealed. They were ready to admit that political and official disabilities were quite another affair. They might be regarded as important safeguards to the Established Church; but, whether they were repealed or not, it must be obvious to every one that there existed no necessity for permitting mere statutes of pains and penalties to continue in force. There was one Act in particular, the 13th of Elizabeth, c. 2, to which he wished to call the attention of the learned Lord, because it was one which stood originally in the Bill he (Lord Beaumont) introduced, but had been struck out at the suggestion of the learned Lord. The motive of the learned Lord for the omission was the belief that it had been repealed by some subsequent act; but how stood the case? It certainly did so happen that a portion of it was repealed, and by what? Why by the Customs Duties Consolidation Act. The Act of Elizabeth prohibited the introduction into this country of any sets of beads, or even of an Agnus Dei. But recently a Customs Duties Act permitted the introduction of those articles on the payment of a duty of two per cent ad valorem. But that did nothing towards the relieving of the people of this country from the restrictions imposed on them with respect to corresponding with Rome by means of letters. The Customs Duties Consolidation Act relieved them from the penalties of a præmunire, so far as regarded the importation of the articles mentioned; but as the law still remained, if any Prelate or any layman received from the Pope any letter, rescript, or other document, he exposed himself to penalties of a very serious kind. The letters that he received might recommend him to abstain from any acts either in public or in private which did not come within the scope of his natural duties. Nay, those documents might suggest that, in order to please the Court of Rome, the parties so addressed must not only be peaceable subjects, but must be active in their support of the Government of this country; yet, as the law at present stood, if any British subject were a party to such correspondence, and published any portion of such letters or rescripts he might be prosecuted for high treason. Looking at that state of the law, and remembering likewise that the subject was under the consideration of the Criminal Law Commissioners, he thought himself justified in rising to inquire from the noble and learned Lord whether he intended fully to carry out the recommendations of those Commissioners.

The Lord Chancellor

said, that in answering the question put to him by the noble Lord, he should not occupy the time of the House by bringing forward any arguments on the one side of the question referred to, or on the other. During the last Session of Parliament, when a Bill on this subject was before the House, he considered it to be one of great importance and of great delicacy. It was one with which he thought that the Commissioners on the Criminal Law ought to deal, and he requested them to report on that subject especially. He thought it right further to state, that Sir Edward Ryan, Mr. Amos, and Mr. Richards, had been added to the Commission. When those Commissioners presented their Report, and brought forward the draught of a Bill, founded upon it, as he had suggested, he did not hesitate to say that, either wholly or in part, he should support the adoption of such recommendations as they might make. He hoped that the noble Lord would for the present at least consider that explanation sufficient.

House adjourned.