HL Deb 09 March 1893 vol 9 cc1394-400

asked if the Return being prepared by the Home Office relative to appointments of County Magistrates in England and Wales would be laid before Parliament; and in what form it would be presented? He said he had put this question on the Paper in consequence of an answer given in another place that the Report would give full particulars of the political opinions of County Magistrates. As it was difficult to see any connection between the business of Petty Sessions and the performance of political duties, he hoped the Lord Chancellor would be able to inform the House that it was not the intention of Her Majesty's Government to place County Magistrates on the rack and to extract from them a statement of their political opinions, and how they had voted at the General Election. That would be so improper a course that he hoped the Home Office did not contemplate insisting upon any such questions or particulars.


My Lords, the Returns which the noble Duke refers to were consented to by Her Majesty's Government in the House of Commons upon the motion of two Members, one sitting on the Government side, and the other on the opposite side of that House. They are the continuation of Returns which have already been granted in previous years, and furnish no novel information. They give the addresses, description or profession, qualification, and there is a heading for remarks, which, as far as I have seen, have reference only to the question of residence or non-residence. That is the entire substance of this Return. The other asks for the date of appointment. Those were the only Returns consented to by the Government, and they are in preparation. I do not think this is a convenient time for entering upon the question of the constitution of the County Benches from a political point of view. I quite agree with the noble Duke that a man's politics does not make him more or less fit to exercise the duties of a Magistrate; but, at the same time, I think there are reasons why it would be desirable if it could be avoided that there should not be a great preponderance of one set of opposing political opinions upon the Bench, because it might be supposed that the composition of a Bench of Magistrates of one particular political opinion had some connection with the decisions given. I do not enter into the question of this preponderance, or the reasons which had led to it, inasmuch as the noble Duke has said it is quite immaterial what are the opinions of those who occupy the Bench; but I thought it right to say there is a point of view from which it does become material, and that if you find the political complexion of the Bench is entirely opposed to the general political views prevailing in any particular part of the country or in any particular county, such a state of things has its disadvantages; and I think everybody would agree that is the case whatever may be the preponderating political views of the Magistrates on the Bench or of the people who differ from them.


My Lords, I rather regret that the noble and learned Lord does not see his way to give us at an early period the explanation at which he is glancing, and which I think is very much required in the present state of public opinion on the subject, from rumours which have been going about. Unless I am greatly misinformed, he noble and learned Lord has undertaken in addition to the task of regulating the conscience of the Crown, which we know is his Constitutional prerogative, to regulate the consciences of all the Lord Lieutenants in the country, and he has been pressing them to do what hitherto the more conscientious, and I hope all, Lord Lieutenants have carefully abstained from doing, that is to make appointments on political grounds, and in the direction of the politics which are favoured by the noble and learned Lord. I should be very glad if the noble and learned Lord would break the silence he has observed and let us know how he is exercising these powers which are certainly novel, and which may obviously lead to great abuse. I am afraid his motives will be very much misunderstood; and I doubt very much whether Lord Lieutenants generally will be ready to accept and to submit to this novel discipline to which he has endeavoured to subject them. I am told there are precedents upon which the noble and learned Lord can act for appointing Magistrates of counties without asking for the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenants; but of course if he does that we must expect to see in the county lists one set of Magistrates in a separate list from another: one set of Magistrates appointed by the Lord Lieutenants on the ground of their general competence for the duties they have to fulfil, and another set of Magistrates appointed on the ground of their political opinions. I cannot think that is a desirable result. Of course we know why the difference has arisen. A certain separation took place in the Party opposite, and many Magistrates who had been known as Liberals became known as Liberal-Unionists instead; and if we choose to add the Liberal-Unionists to the Conservatives I have no doubt that would give a large preponderance on the Benches. I am not speaking of what the result of such a state of things would be. My own impression is that Magistrates have always been too careful to keep their judicial duties and their political views much too separate from each other for such a state of things to arise: and I think the noble and learned Lord might very well let well alone. I do not know by what motives he has been actuated, but I repeat that in the public interest information on this subject is to be desired.


I should have thought the noble Marquess might have waited for that information without making this attack upon me upon most imperfect and inaccurate information without any notice to me that such an attack was to be made, because that really is what the noble Marquess has done. I did not come into the House prepared with the materials to go fully into the subject on the present occasion, and I can only say if the noble Marquess represents my action with regard to the Lord Lieutenants as it has been represented to him my action has been misrepresented to him, and very grievously misrepresented. I do not propose to go fully into the matter now, but after what the noble Marquess has said perhaps your Lordships will indulge me for a moment. There is nobody who would be less desirous than I should be to introduce unnecessary politics into appointments to the Magisterial Bench, or any other appointments whatsoever; but whether naturally or unnaturally—I think very naturally— there is grievous irritation and discontent existing in many parts of the country from the belief that the Magistrates have been appointed because they belong to one political Party, whilst persons perfectly fit and competent, not competent merely on account of their politics, but competent to fulfil the duties of Magistrates on the Bench have been passed over because their politics have not been of the description required. I am not going into the question of how far that opinion is just or unjust; I think the grounds for it are not as real as many of those who have entered into this subject believe—I do not myself regard them as so real. But one cannot shut one's eyes to the fact that this feeling did exist. The noble Marquess has said that it would be in the power of the Lord Chancellor to put anybody he pleased upon the Bench. That is a question I would rather not discuss at the present time, for one would have to go somewhat elaborately into the matter. There is, no doubt, a question as to the manner in which that power has been ordinarily exercised, but I do not think this is a convenient time for going into that question. But, assuming there was that power in the Lord Chancellor to appoint whom he pleased, I desire to say that I did not in the slightest degree desire to dictate to any Lord Lieutenant the appointment of any person whose name would be brought before him. I transmitted to the Lord Lieutenants in certain cases names which had been suggested to me, where there was a great preponderance of any one political opinion upon the Bench, but I left it to the Lord Lieutenant in every case to inquire into the circumstances, and to ascertain whether they were fit persons, and I never suggested that he should recommend to me any one of them if he thought them unfit; on the contrary, I suggested to him that he should only recommend to me such of them as he thought proper. And as my ground for doing so, I called attention to the state of opinion which prevailed upon the subject, and that in my opinion it was not expedient that people should think the magistrates were only taken from one side, even though that view might not be as just as they supposed. Therefore I asked them to take the matter into their consideration, and to consider the claims of those persons who had been suggested to me as fit persons to perform magisterial duties on the Bench, and I left it to them, if they thought fit, to recommend them to me. In some instances this has been done. I am not going into all the cases, but those were the steps I took. The communications I made to the Lord Lieutenants were made in a friendly spirit, and in every case, from their replies to me, were accepted in that spirit. It was not an official communication, and it was not done with any view of dictating to the Lord Lieutenants the action they should take, but simply inviting them, in concert with the Lord Chamberlain, to say whether the Bench could not be so constituted as to give general satisfaction. All I have to say is that it seems to me in doing that I have done nothing wrong. The noble Marquess has said that the preponderance has only come into existence in consequence of a division in the Liberal Party. That is entirely a misapprehension. If, instead of adding the Liberal Unionists to the Conservatives, you add the Liberal Unionists to the Liberals, that preponderance will be still impossible in almost any county in England, and therefore the question of preponderance does not arise in the way the noble Marquess has suggested. I believe that for the most part the state of things has not arisen from any partisan action on the part of the Lord Lieutenants, and I have never suggested that the Lord Lieutenants have purposely put upon the Bench those who were of their own political views. What has certainly appeared to me to be the case is that in certain counties, at all events, the Lord Lieutenants have too generally accepted nominations of the local Benches, and the local Benches I do not believe to have been in all cases as free from political feeling and political bias as the Lord Lieutenants to whom those recommendations have been made. There has prevailed in many counties a sort of co-optation of the magistrates. But the appointment is after all with the Lord Chancellor, and the Lord Lieutenant recommends to him; but if the Lord Lieutenant is to be merely a conduit-pipe through whom the local Benches are to nominate the magistrates, that does not appear to me to be a desirable system, and if that view has been communicated to the Lord Lieutenants by any action I have taken, it appears to me it is a very desirable view to convey to them. As I have said, I did not come prepared to enter into a discussion upon this subject. I believe that persons outside this House who are not subject to the same potent influences as the noble Marquess will believe that in these matters I have acted in a friendly spirit towards the Lord Lieutenants, with the view of bringing about as satisfactory a state of things as could be brought about, and, if possible, of satisfying public opinion without any violent change, and it has not been with the motive, as the noble Marquess has insinuated, of placing magistrates of my own political views upon the Bench, because all the Lord Lieutenants have stated that if they had called upon every person whom I suggested they would have put the party I represent in a minority decidedly small.


did not wish to continue the discussion upon the more general question, but would ask the noble and learned Lord whether the House was to understand that the Return would have anything to do in any respect with the politics of the magistrates; that in the column for remarks it was not intended that their politics should be stated, but that it was merely the continuation of the old Return? He hoped there was no political intention whatever in the Return now moved for.


No doubt that is so. As far as I know, the Return will be filled up by the authority to whom it is addressed exactly as in the old way. It contains no new heading or statement of politics. No new subject will be contained in the Return. With regard to the question of the politics of the magistrates, in making the statement I did I, of course, had no Return to go by and it was derived from information sent me by those with whom I communicated, and who were dissatisfied with the constitution of the Bench. I do not suppose it was literally accurate, but all I can say is that it was not from any Return, either in existence or in preparation, that I derived the information I have.