HL Deb 20 December 1847 vol 95 cc1407-11

, in moving for a paper to be forthwith printed—a copy of the Real Property Commission issued last summer, and ordered on his Motion in June—said, that he must state to the House the objects of that Commission. It had been issued in compliance with a report of the Burthens on Lands Committee. That Committee had examined many witnesses upon a most important subject—the burthens to which the owners of land, and those who wished to become owners, were subjected by the defective state of the law regulating the transmission of property by conveyance. The whole labours of the Committee were highly important; but by far the most valuable result of those labours was the body of evidence which the Committee had collected upon the state of the law, and the injurious tendency of its defects. Grounded upon this evidence was the recommendation of the Committee; and it related to four separate heads: first, the improvement of the law of real property; secondly, the simplification of titles; thirdly, the shortening, and generally the improving the forms of deeds; fourthly, the establishment of a general registry. Now he (Lord Brougham) had not, of course, seen the Commission, a copy of which he had moved for, but which from some accident had not yet been presented; but he had occasion to know the substance of the Commission from those who had access to it; and its objects were, not the four which he had described as recommended by the Committee, but only the two last—the forms of deeds, and the registry. No one was more ready than himself to admit the great importance of these two heads. Indeed he had already carried an important Bill upon the first of these two—the shortening and simplifying town leases—and had introduced another more general measure, which stood over for the consideration of the Commission. But he believed he spoke the general sense of those who were anxious for the amendment of the law, and, he might add, of the Commissioners themselves, when he expressed his regret that the two first of the Committee's recommendations had not also been adopted, and that the inquiries of the Commission had been confined to the two last. Indeed, it would be found practically to be impossible that the Commission should satisfactorily execute its duties with respect to the forms of deeds and the establishment of a registry, without having the power of inquiring into the law of real property and the simplification of titles. He trusted that his noble Friends opposite would, during the recess, accede to this recommendation, with the invaluable assistance of his noble and learned Friend, unfortunately absent from illness, but whose improved health, he rejoiced to say, gave a prospect of his speedily attending to this important subject, and that the defect in the Commission would be supplied by an extension of its powers. Nor was this the only subject relating to the amendment of the law that called for their attention. He found it had in some quarters been supposed that, because in giving his late notice of again introducing the Bill for enacting a digest or code of the criminal law, he had given no notice of renewing other measures of legislative improvement—the mention of one excluded the rest—on the contrary, it was his intention to bring forward the other measures also; but he felt unwilling to crowd the book with general notices, because when he gave one it was always specific, and intended to be really followed up. He therefore abstained now from doing more than broaching two subjects which seemed not to admit of delay, because the Government could of itself act, and act efficaciously, respecting both; and, therefore, he wished to point their attention towards those subjects, in order that, during the approaching recess, some progress might be made in dealing with them. The first and, in his view, one of the most important that could occupy the attention of the community, was that which he had at the close of the last Session brought before their Lordships—he meant the bribery practised at elections. Complaining of this enormity after the election of 1841, he had ventured to foretell that at the last election it would be repeated, unless some check was applied. Some of his friends, he knew, differed with him as to the degree in which this had prevailed, his own inquiries having satisfied him that 1847 was worse than 1841. But all were agreed that the crime had been extensively committed, and no one pretended to extenuate its dreadful consequences to the morals of the whole people. Every one allowed that no means should be left untried to lessen, if we could not extirpate, this grievous enormity. But while he denied that the other House of Parliament had any exclusive right to commence proceedings for amending the law so as to reach such offence more certainly, and while he cited, as last Session he had done, the remarkable precedent of the most important provisions in the Bribery Act of George II., originating in their Lordships' House, and being agreed to by the Commons, he yet must admit that if the Commons were disposed to perform their duty, a Bill relating so nearly to the elections of their Members might appropriately originate in that House—and he felt that it would be fitter for their Lordships only to move in this important matter, in case it should be found that nothing, or nothing effectual, was done in the Commons. He had reason to believe that a Member of that House, a worthy Baronet, already known advantageously to their Lordships as the mover of a Bill which had been approved by the Criminal Law Committee, and had received their Lordships' sanction, and he trusted had produced beneficial effects, he meant Sir John Pakington, was to give notice of a Bill for preventing bribery at elections. And he (Lord Brougham) should therefore only now intimate that in case no such Bill was sent up within a reasonable time, he should feel it his duty to renew his former proposition. Nothing seemed to him more clear than that there was one effectual means of greatly lessening, if not of altogether preventing, the evil complained of. It was what he had stated on the eve of the last election—the compelling every Member returned to take an oath or make a solemn declaration before taking his seat, that he had not, in any manner of way, directly or indirectly, by himself or his agents, given any money, or other thing, of any promise, to any voter or any other person, for any vote; and that he had not paid any money, knowing, or believing that it was to be employed in obtaining any votes, nor had repaid any money which he believed had been paid in obtaining any votes; and solemnly promising that he would not afterwards at any time pay any such money. He was confident that such an oath or solemn declaration might be framed as no man durst take if he knew that he had bribed, or that any persons had bribed for him, or that he was to repay any sum so expended for him; because whoever should venture to do so must know that some half-dozen, or half-score, or possibly half hundred persons, and those not the most trustworthy, or the most likely to keep his secret, would be aware of his having made himself utterly and for ever, and past all forgiveness, infamous—independent of the risk he encountered of the penalties inflicted by the law. But to make this measure, or any such measure as might be resorted to, against offenders effectual by prosecution, one thing was plainly wanted—a party charged with the duty of bringing these offenders to trial. Here our law, not merely as to bribery, but our whole criminal law, was grievously defective—though there was, for obvious reasons, no one branch of that law in which the defect operated more injuriously. The compromises ever made between parties, sometimes because their guilt was common to both, almost always because the interest of the party was different from that of the public, rendered the want of a public prosecutor peculiarly fatal in preventing the detection and punishment of bribery at elections. He (Lord Brougham) had repeatedly directed the attention of Parliament to this defect in our law, become still more glaring since the Bill passed allowing the prisoner's counsel to address the jury in all cases of felony. His evidence in a Committee of the House of Commons was full to this effect. But an Act of Parliament was not in the first instance at least required to begin this great improvement in the law. His noble Friend opposite (the Marquess of Lansdowne) might recollect that in 1834 he (Lord Brougham) and the then Secretary for the Home Department were much occupied in laying the foundation of such a plan, by adopting for the Central Criminal Court, whoso jurisdiction extended over a population of nearly two millions, the plan which had long been adopted in Northumberland and the West Riding of Yorkshire—employing regularly a counsel to superintend the prosecution of offenders. The same course being pursued in the metropolis, with certain obvious additions, it would be found so advantageous that little difficulty would have been found in obtaining the legislative sanction to it, and having a public prosecutor with his deputies for the circuits, and his local representatives, as they had in Scotland, in France, and in other countries. He ventured to hope that the Government would turn their attention to this subject during the recess. They had every inducement to adopt salutary measures for amending our laws, when it was found that the rare advantage at present belonged to them of really acting uncontrolled by any opposition. For a time, at least, they seemed wholly free from any such obstruction. He hoped they would also turn their attention before Parliament again assembled, to another subject; and it was the last he should now mention. He meant the necessity of a department or board for the preparation of Bills to be submitted to Parliament—not, of course, to preclude any one who chose it from propounding his own draught—but to help the Government, and to help the Parliament, and to help individuals if they chose it—and to give us some chance of having our laws framed consistently, clearly, uniformly, and upon a system; instead of each department and each individual using his own language, and all leaving to the courts of law the labour of construing unconstruable Acts, and to the subject, of being governed by unintelligible laws. This was a subject of the greatest moment. As often as he had called their Lordships' attention to it, so often had he experienced the most unhesitating and universal acquiescence in his opinion. Yet nothing had been done by any Government to remedy the defect which all either complained of or acknowledged. The Law Amendment Society, of which he had, though unworthy, the honour to be president, had presented a report upon this important subject above two years ago, to Sir Robert Peel, then Minister, and Lord Lyndhurst, then Lord Chancellor—and by both the proposition had been, he believed, favourably received. He ventured now to renew the proposition because the time was favourable to its reception, not only from the circumstance he had already adverted to, but from the accident that the place of Government Counsel for drawing Bills was vacant. He trusted the opportunity would be immediately taken of appointing a Board for the important purpose in question—the functions being such as must of necessity be exercised by a Board, if there was any intention that they should be performed with any prospect of advantage to the Parliament or the country. He made no apology for having detained their Lordships with these suggestions. He had been governed in the selection he had made of the points to which he desired their attention, by the consideration, that while no immediate notice was required of other subjects, and on some no proceeding without Parliamentary sanction could be effectually had, the subjects to which he had referred, required immediate attention; and all of them could at least in part be proceeded in by the Government without legislative provisions.