HL Deb 22 June 1883 vol 280 cc1246-52

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that for some time great difficulty had been found, under the existing state of the law, in tracing stolen goods, and discovering the persons who had received them, and the present Bill was intended to obviate some of those difficulties. Their Lordships were aware that there were various local Acts in force in different parts of the Kingdom, and notably in Glasgow, under which there existed powers which had been found considerably more efficient than the general law as it existed in England, and in London in particular. Under these circumstances, a Bill on the subject was introduced in their Lordships' House the Session before last, and referred to a Select Committee, which prosecuted its labours during that Session; and in 1882 the Bill was again introduced and passed through that House, but too late to become law. In that Bill there were a number of clauses relating, among the rest, to pawnbrokers. He believed the profession of pawnbrokers was carried on by a large number of persons, the majority of whom were of the highest respectability; and there could be no doubt of their great importance in many ways, especially to the poorer classes. Nothing, therefore, could be further from the intention of Her Majesty's Government than to show disrespect to any of the upright and honourable men engaged in the business, or to impose upon them any unreasonable, or unnecessary and inconvenient restraints. But, on the other hand, it was a matter of notoriety that, even without any guilty connivance on the part of pawnbrokers, the most respectable of them might sometimes have stolen articles put off upon them, which, at the time, they had no means of knowing to be such; and if sufficient means had been furnished of tracing those articles, a discovery of the guilty parties might have been made. There could, also, be no doubt that in so very numerous a class of persons there were, and necessarily must be, some less scrupulous than others, who might wilfully wink at suspicious circumstances, and take pledges without proper precautions; and it was, therefore, impossible, in dealing with this subject, not to make provision for such cases. In the Bills which were introduced in the two preceding Sessions the whole subject of stolen goods was dealt with together, and in them were certain clauses made especially applicable to pawnbrokers as well as the other and different class of dealers aimed at—the secondhand dealers, or marine store dealers. The pawnbrokers, however, did not like this association in a Bill relating to stolen goods, and that clauses applicable to other persons, not exactly on the same footing, should be applied to them, and a considerable desire was felt, as far as possible, to meet their views; but their objections were not altogether overcome. On the 12th of February this year, the Home Secretary, who was desirous to do everything reasonable to meet the views of respectable members of the trade, received a deputation from that body; and in consequence of what passed at that interview an opportunity was given to the Secretary of the Pawn- brokers' Association, a very able and respectable gentleman, Mr. Hardacre, who had given valuable evidence before their Lordships' Committee, to meet the Director of Criminal Investigations, and to consider, with an Inspector appointed by the Home Secretary, the provisions of a separate draft Bill; for the Home Secretary at once determined to sever the provisions respecting pawnbrokers from the others contained in the Stolen Goods Bill, and to have a perfectly separate Bill for pawnbrokers, for the purpose of amending the Pawnbrokers' Act of 1872. The Secretary of the Pawnbrokers' Association attended at the office of the Director of Criminal Investigations on the 15th of February, and the draft prepared at that time was communicated to him. The Secretary carefully went over it, and various important alterations were made in deference, at least in part, to his suggestions. On the 19th of February Mr. Hardacre wrote to say that he, and the Committee with whom he was acting, were not authorized to represent the entire trade, and requested, on their behalf, that the draft Bill should be made public to the trade generally. But it was not thought convenient that before it was introduced into Parliament it should be circulated in that manner, or that such a course would be conducive to the speedy passing of the measure. The earlier part of the clauses in the present Bill were similar to those passed last year by the House, and the clauses dealing with information to be given to the police were in accordance substantially with the rules which had been approved by 588 out of 617 pawnbrokers of the Metropolis as desirable to be generally followed by the trade. They were to the effect that there should be a careful searching of the police lists of property lost or stolen, that prompt information in suspicious cases should be given to the nearest police station, that there should be a prompt production of articles similar to those described as being stolen, that a search of their books and stock should be made at the request of the police, and the institution of a close inquiry concerning property of special value or bearing distinctive marks, corresponding with those of the articles alleged to be stolen. There were, also, some clauses inserted as to pawnbrokers' licences, which provided that certain convictions should be endorsed on the licences; and that, after. a given number of convictions, followed by penalties of a certain amount, the licences should be forfeited. The difference between this Bill and the Bill of last year was rather in the direction of mitigating than of increasing the stringency of the provisions; for instance, the power originally given to the police to search pawnbrokers' books, under certain circumstances, was withdrawn. He begged to move the second reading of the Bill.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord Chancellor.)


said, he did not rise for the purpose of offering any opposition to the Bill, as he thought that everyone must sympathize with its objects; but as it was to facilitate the discovery of crime, he feared that some of the provisions of the Bill would be found too stringent, and would tend to defeat themselves, and to suppress the business of pawn broking. The noble and learned Earl upon the Woolsack had borne testimony to the good character borne by the majority of pawnbrokers, and was amply justified in doing so, by some rather curious statistics that had been published in the January number of The Quarterly Review, in which it was shown how dependent the poor were upon pawnbrokers for their existence. Those figures showed that something like 300,000 families in the Metropolis were in the habit of pawning small articles, and that if they did not do that they would have, to quote the words of The Review— Neither fire in the grate, nor lamp on the table, nor, indeed, be able to keep the wolf from the door. The pawnbroker was, in fact, the poor man's banker; and this question, therefore, was a poor man's question. In fact, if the pawnbrokers in the East of London were, from any cause, to suspend business for a time, it would thud to nothing less than a revolution. He believed there was a great deal of exaggeration in the notion that they were in the habit of grinding down the poor, and it was only in a very small proportion of cases that stolen goods got into their possession. In what relation did pawnbrokers stand to stolen goods, and how often did they receive them? Ac- cording to the statistics, there were no less than 207,780,000 pledges taken in the course of the year throughout the United Kingdom, and the proportion of stolen goods was only 1 in 14,000. In the Metropolis more than 6,000,000 unclaimed pledges were sold by auction in the course of the year, and at those sales the police were able to identify articles that had been stolen, and the proportion of stolen goods was only as 4 to 250,000. They should take these facts into consideration, together with the one that the poor could not get on without the assistance of pawnbrokers; and if these figures were at all correct—and he saw no reason to doubt them—the character of the pawnbroking trade ought to stand very high; and it was to be hoped, considering the importance of pawnbrokers to the poor, that no unnecessary restriction would be placed on their business. He hoped in Committee the greatest care would be taken to modify what he considered the unduly stringent provisions of the Bill.


said, he had willingly acknowledged that the majority of pawnbrokers were very respectable and honourable men; but the fact remained that a great many stolen articles found their way to the pawnbrokers' shops, which, under the present state of the law, could not be traced; while the small number of cases in which they were discovered was the strongest possible evidence in favour of the necessity for the Bill.


said, he agreed with the noble Earl on the Cross Benches (the Earl of Wemyss). He would suggest that the clauses of the Bill should not be made too stringent. In his opinion, the House would do well to pause before so interfering with the pawnbroking trade; and, at any rate, not to do so more than was absolutely necessary. The pawnbrokers were, in several parts of London, the poor man's bankers. He would admit that there were good and bad pawnbrokers; but thought it would have been extremely unfair to have placed pawnbrokers in the same category with secondhand dealers and marine store dealers.


said, he would point out that competition left the pawnbrokers only small profits, which would be still further reduced by every legislative requirement which gave them ad- ditional trouble; therefore, the greater the demands that were made upon them with regard to preparing daily lists, the greater would be the charge made upon the poor who had to resort to pledging their goods.


said, he fully concurred in the suggestions that had been made by his noble Friend (the Earl of Wemyss) and the noble Earl (the Earl of Carnarvon) that the clauses of the Bill should riot be made too stringent. As an instance, he would ask their Lordships to look at Clause 6, which he considered enabled "suspicion" to be carried too far, and that innocent persons would suffer injury under it.


said, he sympathized very much with what had been said on behalf of the pawnbrokers by the noble Earl (the Earl of Wemyss); but, on the other hand, he thought the general public would thank the noble and learned Earl (the Lord Chancellor) for bringing in a measure that would aid the police in the recovery of stolen goods. He supposed that legislation was considered desirable, because the police did not receive the amount of assistance they thought they ought to receive in their efforts to trace stolen property. He was glad to hear that the number of instances of the discovery of stolen goods followed by conviction was so very small; but still there was a class of cases in which it was difficult to obtain convictions, and in which the goods stolen did pass into the hands of pawnbrokers. While there wore some who carried on large businesses reputably, there were others who did not restore stolen goods as they might do; and the additional powers conferred on the police by the Bill would probably be exercised with advantage to the public, who would not have any cause to regret the introduction of the measure.


said, although only the last speaker (Lord Truro) and his noble and learned Friend upon the Woolsack had expressed opinions favourable to the Bill, the general tone of the discussion had been in its favour. The argument of the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Wemyss) that the transactions of the pawnbrokers were very large, and that there were few discoveries of stolen goods in their hands, was one that cut two ways, and, while proving the inadequacy of the existing law, suggested that some additional powers might be required. When it was said that there ought to be no unnecessary rigour in those powers, the question whether there was or not entirely depended upon the provisions of the Bill; and the argument would hardly be pushed to the extent of impeding the restoration of stolen property. As regarded the present Bill, he thought it had not been alleged that its provisions were at all too rigorous. It was simply a question as to whether there should be greater immunity with regard to stolen goods, or that pawnbrokers should be required to go into a little more detail.

After a few words of explanation from the Earl of WEMYSS,

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Friday next.