Monday, 20 February 2012

20th February 1812: Third reading of the Frame-breaking Bill in the House of Commons

On Thursday 20th February, the Frame-breaking Bill was read for a third and final time in the House of Commons.

Mr. Secretary Ryder: moved the order of the day for the third reading of the Bill for the more exemplary punishment of persons destroying or injuring any Stocking or Lace Frames, or other machifes or engines used in the Frame-work knitted manufactory, or any articles or goods in such Frames or Machines.

Mr. Hutchinson: said, that he would be the last man in that House to defend or justify the outrages against which this Bill had been provided; but it was a material point to ascertain, before it passed into a law, whether it could have the desired effect of putting a stop to these outrages. He did not think it could; and he was fortified in that opinion by the frank declaration of the right hon. Secretary, who had, in introducing the Bill, protested against pledging himself to the ultimate success of his own measure. After so strange, but so explicit an avowal on the part of the originator of the Bill, he thought it became the House to be cautious of adding to the pile of their penal laws, one of which they only could be certain, that it might take away mens' lives without at all restraining their offences. The law which had been the professed model of the present Bill, made the offence of Frame-Breaking a transportable felony—the penalty, however, was departed from, and the offence made a capital felony. The reason for this change did not appear. It had been said that under the former act no persons could be brought to discover. If it had been so difficult to get witnesses to prosecute to conviction, when the offence was only transportable, would it be less so under the present act, when the conviction affected life? He thought rather that this very alteration would enhance the difficulty it was intended to obviate. But they had not merely the authority of the right hon. Secretary against his own measure—they had that of the minister himself, who bad expressed his apprehensions that this offence had not yet reached its height—that it might yet proceed to an alarming extent, and reach perhaps throughout a great part of the manufacturing system of the country. If the evil now to be provided against was so to en-crease, even under the operation of this statute, why enact it at all? They were not pledged to this particular act. Why not look anxiously for some better remedy? For surely gentlemen would not contend, that that which could do nothing was the best possible remedy the case admitted of. What had been the immediate cause of these outrages? Distress perhaps unparalleled. Did not this involve a consideration that bound them to reflect upon the measures that had created that distress? Why not then first inquire into the causes of that distress? If they had been pursuing a system which, in its consequences, threatened the people with beggary and want, it was their bounden duty to stop, and change, that system, before they sent out an act to hang op the people for outrages into which their own mal-ad-ministration had driven them. They had no right to be so very keen and prompt in punishing the madness which they themselves might have occasioned. They had been called upon to be firm—let them be firm in resisting the outrages of the lawless; but pertinacious obstinacy in resisting the complaints of a distressed people, was no part of that firmness. But according to their own shewing, where was the firmness in making an ineffectual shew of power—in doing that which could do nothing? Would this act do away the unparalleled distress that had provoked, and must continue to provoke, these outrages? And if it did not, why not try to trace that distress to its true cause, and remedy it at once? But mark the inconsistency of ministers, who admitted and denied the existence and extent of that distress, according as such admission or denial was meant to square with the topic then to be disposed of. If the efficacy of the Orders in Council was impeached, instantly this distress became comparative commercial prosperity. The trade, of the enemy was annihilated, and ours was progressively prosperous; but when the House was to be called upon for another penal statute, and when the unprecedented distresses of the people were attempted to be traced to their natural source—the unprecedented errors of the government—then, indeed, the extent of the calamity was admitted, and ascribed to the wide and heavy operation of those Decrees which they had been told, the Orders in Council had rendered altogether nugatory and futile. Could the people think them sincere in their professions to relieve their pressures, when they found them thus sporting with their distresses? An allusion had been made to that part of the Jewish law which condemned children who rebelled against their parents, to be taken without the gates of the city and there stoned to death—but were there no obligations on the part of the parent? If the parents profligately and desperately consumed the substance of their children, deprived them of their birth-right, and all means of living, were children so abused bound by all those strong ties of tenderness and piety which connect those sacred relationships in ordinary life? He, for his part, was shocked to see such total indifference on the part of ministers to the sufferings of this class of their miserable fellow subjects. In the name of those sufferings he called for inquiry into the causes of them. They were bound to know what those people suffered before they Could ascertain the amount of that criminality which their miseries had extorted, and which they were now going to punish with death. Was it the war? or the mode of carrying on the war? or were they to look at home for the fatal cause—was it to be traced to a total abandonment of ail economy at home? If it was one of those, apply the remedy to the source, and do not begin by unnecessarily cutting off the extremities. After vaunting so much about the prosperity of the country, was this the comment put by ministers upon it? They sent out this act to tell the people of their commercial prosperity—this first act of what may yet be followed by a bloody code—an act that professedly can neither remedy nor prevent, but hang the criminal without putting a stop to the crime. It was rather an inauspicious act for this new administration to commence with. They begin their new government of a new æra by adding to the capital crimes of the country, an offence arising out of the desperation of unexampled distresses—this, he must say, was rather an unfortunate beginning at so prosperous an sera for so unfortunate a set of ministers! He asked if they had yet given the people one practical pledge of their sincerity in the cause of economical reform? They had been lately making enormous additions to their civil establishments, and since that they had again thrown back the Reversion Bill upon the discontents of the country. An hon. gentleman (Mr. Herbert) had talked of the White Boy system, in Ireland, and said, that if the Irish Parliament had not resorted to those vigorous measures which were proposed in the present instance, that system might not have been put down. He (Mr. H.) could not help thinking this a most unfortunate allusion. The White Boys broke out in 1760—at that period, owing to a great dearth of cattle in consequence of a general murrain in the north of Europe, cattle in Ireland brought so high a price, that it became an object with many landholders to turn their arable into pasture—a system that, by taking in all the commonage, operated in the most hard way upon the poor peasantry. This produced the insurrection denominated White Boys.

Mr. Cripps:—Mr. Speaker, I beg leave to ask whether the hon. gentleman is in order.

The Speaker:—I hardly know how to answer that question. If the hon. gentleman is in order, I am at a loss to discover how he is so (hear, hear!)

Mr. Hutchinson:—The riots of the White Boys were adduced as analogous to those of the Frame Breakers. We were told that the same vigour which had checked the one would now be necessary to put down the other. I answer, first, that admit the analogy, because both species of outrages originated in iniquitous grievances and hardships; and, secondly, that as the White Boys were put down by redress of their grievances, and not by the rigour of law, that according to the same analogy, you are bound to inquire into the grievances of the Frame Breakers, and to remedy them without delay, as the most effectual way of putting a stop to these outrages. I know not, Sir, whether you can now perceive the applicability of my argument; or whether you are still at a loss to discover whether, in urging it, I am within the limits of order. I repeat, then, that the vigour of the law failed in putting down the White Boys—that it will fail in putting down the Frame Breakers. But is it meant that the one should be the pure model of the other? Would you introduce the pitch cap, and the other memorable insignia of torture, so well known in Ireland, though not understood here? Would you introduce them into England? The White Boy code was fit only for the meridian of Barbary, as it had, indeed, been well described by a most intelligent writer on the state of Ireland. But look at this subject as you will, you are forced to the consideration of the cause—are any portion of the people of England given to wanton riots? was this the national character? was it the character of the manufacturing part of the country? were they not proverbially a grave, plodding, quiet, discreet, sedate, business-involved class of men? What but intolerable distress could drive such a class to lawless outrage; and if the distress was too great to be borne, the legislature was bound to interpose some remedy, and not hang men because they could not suffer beyond human nature. I have now stated my objections to this measure, and condole with the new minister that such should be the first act of this new æra of the flourishing state of the empire. The proofs of such national prosperity were unfortunately but too equivocal, if they were to be found only in such a measure as that which they are now about to pass, or in a rupture with America; or in the midst of such general peril, in the alarming discontents and alienation of the Irish people. The man who can repose confidence in those ministers who have brought the empire to such a state, is not only, in my opinion, incapable of forming a sane judgment, but would deserve, while he ranted about our national prosperity, to be hung up in a cage to the gaze of the starving multitudes in this country, and himself be made the sport of those, upon whose miseries he could pass so cruel a mockery. If the Bill does pass without inquiry, I trust that the people of England will proceed to hold constitutional meetings, and resort to every constitutional mode of redress. I hope that they will at length make that voice be heard within these walls which has had for so long a time such little influence upon our counsels.

Mr. Sinclair: said:—I rise, Sir, to give my decided support to this measure, the necessity of which I both acknowledge and lament. Though for the most part disposed to concur, on the subject of capital punishments, with an hon. and learn" ed gentleman opposite (sir S. Romilly,) whose humane and enlightened exertions for mitigating the rigour of the Penal Code, entitle him to the gratitude of his country, yet on the other hand, I contend, that cases may occur (of which I conceive the present to be an instance) in which lenity to the aggressors, is cruelty to the injured. The first clause of this Bill, by which the perpetration of these outrages is rendered a capital offence, may not, it is true, facilitate the detection of the past, but will (I trust) be conducive to the prevention of similar enormities in future—whilst the second clause, which enforces the necessity of giving early information when an outrage has been committed, will powerfully second the exertions of the magistrates to bring the offenders to justice. When the punishment of death has long subsisted against a particular crime, it may perhaps be viewed with less terror by offenders, as the nature of the crime and that of the penalty attached to it are equally familiar to their minds; but when it is for the first time enacted against an offence, to which a slighter punishment was attached before, it cannot, I think, fail to deter many persons from engaging at all in the crime, and recall many others to a sense of what they owe to themselves and to their families. We need not be afraid of the judgment of posterity on the subject of this law. Whilst they deprecate its rigour, they will acknowledge its necessity; and only consider it as a temporary remedy for a temporary evil, arising, I trust, from temporary causes.—Sir, I should have thought that the candid and perspicuous statement of the right hon. Secretary on a former occasion, corroborated as it was by the members for the town and county of Nottingham, would have prevented any insinuations from being thrown out, that the government had acted with supineness or inactivity. To such insinuations an honourable contrast is afforded by the manly and impartial declaration of the member for Bedford (Mr. Whitbread,) that in his opinion nothing had been left untried.—Sir, the protracted continuance of these disturbances does not prove any remissness on the part of the government, but aggravates the criminality of the offenders. From the secrecy with which their attacks were planned, the celerity with which they were executed, and the suddenness with which they were renewed in quarters where they least were expected, I cannot help inferring that their misconduct was not owing to the momentary impulse of distress or irritation, but to a premeditated plan of systematic aggression, which certainly rendered vigilance and energy on the part of the government doubly necessary, but must also in many instances have rendered them ineffectual.—Sir. I sincerely hope that the complete restoration of tranquillity may render it unnecessary to have recourse to the provisions of this act; but, on the other hand, I trust, that if a continuance of these disturbances should render it expedient, they will be enforced with vigour, and attended with success. With regard, Sir, to what fell from the hon. gentleman who spoke last, if I had entered the House in the middle of his speech, I should have supposed that we were discussing the state of the nation—a topic to which his arguments had a much more immediate reference than to the question now under consideration. I shall not pretend to comment upon such extraneous observations.—When the motion of which an hon. baronet has given notice for an inquiry into the State of the Nation, is brought forward, I have no doubt that most of these arguments will be repeated, and many of them. I trust, satisfactorily refuted.

Mr. Herbert: said, that he did not recommend the mode of punishment adopted in Ireland against insurgents here, but generally the necessity of having recourse to a capital enactment.

Sir A. Piggott: could not refrain, in this last stage of the Bill, from repeating his objections to it, being satisfied that it was a measure calculated to mislead the public, and at the same time to operate as no check upon the outrages sought to be corrected. He could not forbear expressing his astonishment that such acts as had lately been carried on for a series of months with impunity bad not called out the inquisitorial power of that House, but that, instead of such an inquiry, an act should be introduced, which was calculated for nothing but to mislead the public. If such acts as those sought to be provided against, could be carried on without detection, what did the present Bill do to deter from the commission of them? Increasing the degree of punishment only tended to add to the motives which now prevailed in favour of concealment, and to increase the reluctance to give testimony. Did they not, however, by the present Bill, furnish motives even for the commission of another crime of a still deeper dye? Did they not furnish persons already so well disciplined in the arts of concealment with a fresh motive, if detection could not otherwise be secured, to cut off the evidence against them? If in any one instance such an occurrence as this were to take place, must the House not feel that they had aggravated, instead of curing the evil?

Mr. Secretary Ryder: did not conceive it necessary to repeat over and over again, the reasons which urged him to the adoption of this measure. If he had, however, done so, he should only be following the example of his hon. and learned friend who had just sat down. He recommended this Bill to the legislature, not in the certainty, but in the hope of putting down the disturbances in Nottinghamshire, and to shew the country that every legislative means were used, before recourse should be taken to measures of greater severity. He was quite confident that the suffrage of the people would be with this Bill.

The Bill was then read a third time and passed.

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