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Third Reading

Volume 203: debated on Friday 22 July 1870

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Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."

said, since this Bill had been printed no opportunity had been offered for discussing its main principles; and he therefore, by the leave of the House, would make a short and final protest before this tyrannical and unnecessary Bill was read a third time. When new taxes were levied it was generally supposed some fresh Revenue was wanted, but this year the Chancellor had an overflowing Exchequer, and, to show the country how little he needed money, in the original Bill the right hon. Gentleman proposed to remit the £150,000 now paid for game certificates. The game certificates had been retained; but a practical exemption from the new tax was granted to some 50,000 sporting gentlemen, for the £3 certificates were in future to include gun licences. They were told that it was to be a register of fire-arms, but it would be a most imperfect one. A man might keep any number of guns in his house, and a rich sportsman who paid for one certificate could use any number in the field, and his servants, who carried them or loaded for him would be exempt. Again, it was said that the Bill was to restrain the increasing use of revolvers; but a man could keep a revolver in his house, could practise with it on his premises, and, as there was no right to search his person, he could carry it about him for years and never pay the tax. Further, this Bill was to repress shooting on the road; but hon. Members were aware that an Act already existed by which anyone firing a gun upon or within 25 yards of a highway was liable to a fine of 40s. And when it was argued that the Bill would prevent accidents by the careless use of fire-arms, it should be remembered that such accidents were much more common in "the house and the curtilage thereof" than they were in the field. It was not for him to criticize the Act of a Liberal Government for placing a tax upon the staple trade of mighty Birmingham, but he did believe it would be as unpopular, as it would be unfair, to impose restrictions upon the honest livelihood and innocent pleasures of the lower middle class. He could not forget the happy days he passed in his school holidays when he shot wood-pigeons, fieldfares, and rabbits; and he knew a farmer would look twice before he paid 10s. each for his sons to carry a gun. But his chief objection to this Bill was that it imposed a new agricultural tax, for it was not to be supposed every able-bodied farmer would turn crow-boy, and if any other hands than his own used a gun for the purpose of scaring birds he must pay the 10s. licence. He contended that a gun was absolutely essential to a farmer; that, as it had been said by his hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, Government might as well impose a tax upon a plough. The only bright spot that he could see in the Bill was that it would discourage poaching. As it originally stood, he had expressed an opinion that it would lead to the destruction of all outlying game; but the retention of the game certificates would prevent that evil. The professional poacher would no doubt pay the gun tax with even more readiness than he did the old game certificate. On the other hand, the pot-hunter and the hedge-poacher would find his occupation more difficult; but, as that was in favour of the preservation of game, it might not commend itself to hon. Members opposite. He thanked the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the attention to which he had listened to his suggestions, and for the concessions the right hon. Gentleman had made. He had no fault to find with the Government, for they made no move to rescind his Amendment which would have exempted all occupiers of land from a tax on crow-guns. That Motion, which was carried last night, came from the county Gentlemen who sat around him, and he knew full well that the British farmers when they paid the new tax would think with pain and grief that it was their own friends who voted against exempting them from this fresh burden. He could not understand how it was that so many Conservative Members had made such a mistake; he however feared the truth was this—that although they loved their agricultural constituents much they loved their game ten times more.

said, he regarded this measure as obnoxious on several grounds. First, it was a concession on the part of the Government to the game preservers. Secondly, it was unconstitutional, in that its effect would be to disarm the country to a great extent; and in the present disturbed state of Europe he thought it well that every ploughboy in the land should know how to aim a gun and pull a trigger. Thirdly, the incidence of taxation it proposed was excessively unfair, it being in the nature of a poll tax. And, fourthly, from the frequency and impunity with which its provisions would be evaded, the passing of such a measure as this had a tendency to induce a contempt for the law, and break down the minor morals of the population.

said, as being no preserver of game, he had no such motive in supporting this Bill as that attributed to its supporters by the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Taylor). He believed the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. C. S. Read) had misrepresented the motives of those sitting on his own side of the House who supported the Bill. For his own part he did not believe that the Bill would in any way promote the preservation of game. He supported the Bill on the sole ground that it would prove useful in securing a registration of arms in this country.

said, he regretted that so many hon. Members should have misunderstood the object of the Amendment which he moved on a former occasion, and that some of those who had supported it when first proposed should afterwards have voted against it. He objected to this measure because he believed it would be constantly evaded, and because he believed any system of legislation having that result to be bad.

said, he considered that the measure was uncalled for and not justified on any principle, financial or otherwise. Its provisions were aimed at the most orderly and peaceable portion of the community.

said, he must protest against Norfolk being regarded as England, and he thought it unfair, after the concessions made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that hon. Gentlemen should characterize this as a bad Bill. He voted originally for the Amendment of the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. C. S. Read), which had been reversed; but when he found that it would make a distinction between rich and poor he voted that it should be struck out. He thought the Bill, on the whole, would work fairly, and he therefore should support it.

said, he should oppose the Bill, which he regarded as a Game Law Bill in disguise. He spoke on behalf of a large agricultural county (Aberdeenshire). Should the Bill be passed it would be very disastrous to the Liberalism of Scotland.

said, the 10s. tax would operate unjustly and unequally between the rich man and the poor. He held that in these times that man was the best friend of his country who encouraged every honest man, young and old, to accustom himself to the use of arms. He (Mr. Macfie) had no fear of the people, and he must deprecate the taking away from them of a privilege which from time immemorial they had enjoyed in this free and happy land.

said, that this was a retrograde stop in legislation. Game preserving would be favoured by it. One reason, perhaps, which the right hon. Gentleman (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) who differed from many who sat on the same Bench, had for introducing this measure was that he had no confidence in the democracy, and was therefore anxious to promote any legislation which would take away the power of reaction from the lower orders. This was a Bill full of exceptions. Why was not the Volunteer to pay 10s. for his rifle, while his neighbour who might be poorer had got to pay the tax? The Bill was against the unanimous opinion of the best supporters of the Government. In order that a Division might be taken upon it, he would move that the Bill be read the third time upon this day three months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—( Mr. Craufurd.)

said, he thought the Government had been very unjustly attacked on this occasion. He should support the Bill, although he did not agree with all its details. The Bill had lost a great deal of its original character; but the Chancellor of the Exchequer had gone a long way to meet the objections of country gentlemen, had reduced the tax from £1 to 10s., and had made a number of concessions which would improve the working of the measure.

said, that the Bill would fall very hard on the farmers, many of whom made no use of guns themselves, but employed persons to kill vermin on the land. As the Bill had given great dissatisfaction to the Scotch Members, he begged to suggest that Scotland should be omitted from its operation.

said, he must express his regret that this Bill should have been introduced by the Government. There was a very ugly look about it, and although he had no apprehension of any invasion of our liberties by the Liberal Government on that Bench, yet it had always been a distinguishing mark of this country that the people might possess arms, and this Bill was a very grave invasion of what was always meant to be a common right. He recollected having read in his youth, in Aristotle, or some other teacher of the science of politics, that the distinction between a tyranny and a free country was this—that in a free country the citizens were allowed to have the free use of arms; but in a tyranny the use of arms was forbidden. On that account he was very sorry this distinguishing characteristic of our country should be invaded or set at nought. Though not an alarmist, he should be glad if every adult in this country at the present moment possessed a rifle, and knew how to use it. He trusted that it was not too late for the Government to reconsider their position, especially when they took into account the events now imminent on the Continent.

said, that the conduct of the Government with re- gard to the Game Laws, taken in connection with their conduct with respect to this Bill, would excite the greatest possible dissatisfaction.

said, he would suggest that it was not even now too late to withdraw the Bill.

Sir, this Bill must stand or fall by the provisions it contains, and not by the motives of those who introduced it. I can assure my hon. Friends that there is no Gentleman in this House more innocent of any intention of propping up the Game Laws than myself. I do not care a pin for the Game Laws. One reason which I had for imposing an uniform tax of £1 on fire-arms was that I should have been very glad to separate any question of Revenue from the Game Laws. The loss the collection of the Revenue is mixed up with matters that excite difference of opinion the better; and, therefore, I should, have been very glad if I could have removed these questions of taxes on fire-arms to a less passionate arena than now exists. However, the opinion of the House is entirely against that, and I had no choice. The object of the Bill is to check lawless habits. In answer to those who say it is a sign of freedom that the lower classes should go armed, I say it is the greatest proof of the absence of freedom when every man goes armed. What is the use of civilized institutions, of assemblies like this, of law and of Judges, and of all the paraphernalia of justice, if all it comes to is that every man is to be left to be the avenger of his own quarrel? You might as well go and live with the Sioux Indians, who are not embarrassed with all this trouble, and who are not called upon to sit here all day and all night. If every man is to carry a deadly weapon, and is to be a law to himself and to his neighbours, there is no end of confusion. No doubt, at the time of the Plantagenets, when the King ruled by an immense body of troops whom he kept continually about him, as a check upon the encroachments of the King, every man did carry arms, so as to rise in rebellion and coerce the King when he went beyond public opinion; but, happily, in our times, as for the last 100 years, we act upon a better plan; we have allowed the nation to be represented here; and instead of fighting out our quarrels in the open field, we settle them over this Table. Why men should think it a retrograde step to restrict by a moderate licence the indiscriminate carrying of arms I cannot for a moment conceive. I am sorry I cannot tell the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. White) where he read the passage he cited, and if it were not for the high authority I attach to his accuracy, I should have thought he never read it at all. I think, however, I know what he was referring to. Aristotle does call it a sign of tyranny for a King to be defended by strangers, because he cannot trust his own subjects, and a sign of a free country that a King should be guarded by his subjects. That is different from every man being armed. When I introduced this Bill, I quoted a passage from Thucydides, where he speaks of the free Athenians being the first among the Greeks to give up the habit of wearing arms, whereby life became more civilized and humane. I think it is a good object to discourage the lower classes from habitually carrying deadly weapons. Though I care nothing about the Game Laws, on behalf of the morality of this country I wish to keep the poor out of crime. It is a good object to prevent poaching as far as we can, and there is no sentiment more mawkish than that of investing the practice of poaching with any sort of romance. It may do for making pretty stories and idylls; but nobody knows better than I do—for few have seen more desperate criminals than I have—that poaching is the beginning of all wickedness. You begin with the boy in the field; you put a gun in his hand to frighten away the birds; at first he is so frightened that he dares not lift it, and he rests it against a gate and shuts both his eyes when he fires. He soon gets over that, and gradually he becomes a marksman. Sport is a natural taste with almost every Englishman, and the youth goes on from one thing to another until he becomes a poacher. He gets into bad society, makes criminal associates, and goes from bad to worse, until he is happy at finding himself in Botany Bay. I wish to check that kind of demoralization, without reference to the Game Laws, and we cannot do anything more efficient to check it than putting a moderate restraint upon the use of firearms. If a man wants to use fire-arms in the defence of his country he can join a Volunteer Association. This habit of carrying fire-arms has grown inveterate, until in London there are 100 complaints a day of persons shooting everything which comes in their way, such as pigeons, fowls, and cats. It seems to me that the thing has become perfectly intolerable; and, having a due regard to the interests of the Exchequer, I propose to keep people as far as I can out of crime, and to prevent them disturbing the peace of the country.

said, they were not legislating for Greek republics, and there were others besides little boys in the country; therefore, while giving the Chancellor of the Exchequer all possible credit for paternal considerations, he must oppose the Bill. The Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to limit the provisions of the Bill he introduced to financial objects, and ought not to trespass upon the domain of the Secretary of State for the Home Department. This Bill, he (Mr. Newdegate) believed, was preliminary to an Arms Act for England. Hitherto we had passed Arms Acts for Ireland, because of Fenian outbreaks; but there had been complaints of the restraints imposed upon the Irish people, because there were others besides little boys and Fenians in Ireland. In a financial point of view there was no justification for this Bill, which was a police measure introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It would impose undue restrictions not only upon little boys, but upon grown men, and it would seriously affect the trade of large centres of population.

Question put, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 179; Noes 50: Majority 129.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.