HC Deb 28 May 1857 vol 145 cc994-9

VISCOUNT RAYNHAM moved for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the operation of the Act of the 16 & 17 Vict. c. 21, for the punishment of persons convicted of Aggravated Assaults on Women and Children. He said it was lamentable to consider that the number of these offences had increased to such an extent as to become a disgrace to the country; and he therefore wished the matter to be discussed in order that measures might be adopted for the more effectual prevention of the atrocities he alluded to, When the attention of the country was being called to the social evils which prevailed, he could not conceive that any subject more proper for consideration could be submitted to the House than that to which he now directed attention. It was his opinion, and that of many other hon. Members, that the Act now in force for the prevention of these crimes had not had the effect which had been hoped from it when it was passed. He would not detain the House by an enumeration of the cases of cruelty which had lately been reported, but only mention one of peculiar enormity. It had occurred at Horncastle, in which a girl, for some trifling offence, was twice beaten by a man and a boy at the direction of her mistress, and then placed against a grindstone, which was turned round in a way seriously to injure her person. The magistrates before whom the case was brought expressed the greatest horror at its atrocity, but only fined the mistress £5, the man £3 5s. 6d., and the boy £1 5s. It might be very true, as he had heard observed, that no punishment which they could inflict would actually prevent the commission of any crime, and he did not expect, therefore, by the measure which he had in view altogether to repress offences of this description; but when he compared the maximum amount of punishment which was awarded for this crime with that which was inflicted in cases of a trivial character, he thought that great inconsistency was the result, that the punishment was inadequate, and that the state of the law should no longer continue as at present. In merely moving for a Select Committee, he should not press his own views upon the House beyond stating his belief that corporal punishment was the only proper punishment for this crime. He trusted that the common sense and manly feeling of the Members of that House would lead them to the decision that, in the absence of such an acquaintance with all the bearings of this important subject as would at once guide them to a correct decision, they should allow a Committee to be appointed to examine and report upon the whole question. In conclusion, the noble Lord moved for the appointment of a Select Committee.


seconded the Motion.


said, that he should be very happy to concur with his noble Friend in any measure which would have the practical result of putting an effectual check to crimes of the nature to which he had referred. They naturally and properly excited great indignation in consequence of the frequency of their committal, and the impunity with which they had been perpetrated. An Act, however, had recently been passed at the instance of his hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. FitzRoy) giving a summary jurisdiction to magistrates in these cases, and enabling them to inflict a punishment of six months' imprisonment with hard labour. Previously, these crimes were often committed with impunity, because it was found impossible to collect the witnesses and to prosecute the offender with success when the case had to be sent for trial to the assizes; but the consequence of the recent Act giving summary jurisdiction had been to ensure the trial and punishment of the offender. He believed that that Act had been successful in its operation so far as the punishment of offenders was concerned; but he did not see how the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into that Act could have the practical effect which his noble Friend desired. If his noble Friend wished to see what had been the effect of that Act, by means of a classified return showing the number of convictions which had taken place under it, and the punishment inflicted in each case, and testing those convictions periodically, so as to see whether these offences were on the increase or decrease, he should be happy to arrange for such a return with him. From a document of that kind the House would be able to understand what the operation of the Act had been, but the return would not show what had been its effect in checking crimes of this nature, owing to the almost invariable impunity with which, previously to the passing of the Act, such crimes had been committed. With respect to the Horncastle case, to which his noble Friend had referred, and in which he thought that sufficient punishment had not been inflicted, the only inference that could be drawn from it, even supposing his noble Friend's view to be correct, was that the magistrates had not inflicted the full punishment which the law allowed them; and it by no means showed that the punishment which the law permitted was insufficient for the purpose. In conclusion, he reminded the House of the inconvenience which would arise, seeing the calls which must be made upon Members to serve upon private Bill and Election Committees, if they granted Select Committees without an urgent necessity for their being established. He did not think that any sufficient case had been made out in the present instance; he thought that no practical good would result from the appointment of a Select Committee; and he trusted, therefore, that the House would not agree to the Motion of his noble Friend.


thought that the right hon. Gentleman had misunderstood the object of the noble Lord who had brought forward this Motion, which was, as he understood the noble Lord, to prove that this subject had never yet been fairly and fully discussed, and that the only way of checking the offence in question was by summary corporal punishment. He could not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the effect of the Act introduced by the hon. Member for Lewes had been to diminish the amount of crimes of this description; for, he held in his hand a number of convictions that took place in the metropolitan districts, by which it appeared that last year there were on an average 374 in each district, and if he recollected rightly the convictions under the same Act were in the previous year as nearly as possible the same in amount. He, therefore, contended that the Act had been totally inoperative in producing any diminution of these offences. Detailed evidence might be obtained in a Select Committee which could not be obtained in any other way, and a report might be agreed to which would be the groundwork for future legislation. As for the argument of the want of time, and the small number of Members who were available for Select Committees, the inquiry need only take a short time, and might be terminated before the pressure of the Election Committees came on. If the House determined not to deal with this question in any way it would make itself responsible for the offences of this character which might occur hereafter.


said, he supported the Motion. He was certain that there was no one who read the papers but must feel that there was a system of brutality pursued by husbands towards women in England that required an amendment of the law. The Bill of 1853, which gave magistrates the power to inflict six months' imprisonment on husbands who ill-treated their wives was not a punishment on the wrongdoer, but it was a punishment on his wife and family, who lost the man's services for the whole of that period. There were Committees appointed to investigate the crotchets of individual Members, and why should the Secretary for the Home Department object to the appointment of this one, which had reference to a national object. He could not say that Ireland had anything to do with it, for they never beat their wives in Ireland; but England had a great deal to do with it, and that being the case, why not grant the inquiry? The argument of the Home Secretary, of taking away hon. Members from other Committees, was of no effect, as the inquiry would not last above five or six days. There would, therefore, be little injury done to other Committees, and no great tax laid upon the energies of hon. Members. He should, therefore, vote for the appointment of such a Committee.


said, he thought that the statistical account promised by the Home Secretary would not attain the end which the noble Lord the Member for Tamworth had in view. The noble Lord's object was to inquire into the Act. of 1853, and this of course could only be done by obtaining information from persons—police magistrates and others—who took an interest in the question and had practical experience of the effects of the Act. That Act when passed was described as being experimental, and when it was proposed to introduce into it corporal punishment it was objected to as too great an innovation. The tone of the debate was that it would be better to begin by a milder punishment; but the House did not preclude itself from imposing corporal punishment if the milder punishment should fail. That, he believed, was the tone which the noble Lord at the head of the Government took on that occasion. They ought, therefore, to show themselves doubly anxious to redress any evils which peculiarly affected the other sex. Women were unfairly circumstanced. The Members of the House of Commons were all men. The Judges were all men. In fact, those who made the laws and administered them were men, and the women had no voice in either.


was of opinion that, though an inquiry into the subject was necessary at some time or other, it could not be made satisfactorily now, because many of the police magistrates—who would, of course, be the most important witnesses to be examined—had not yet made up their minds as to the working of the Act, In some districts, though the convictions had decreased, the charges had increased, showing that the women were by no means backward to avail themselves of this weapon against their husbands by bringing forward charges against them which were either exaggerated or totally groundless. Motion made, and Question put, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the operation of the Act 16 & 17 Vict. c. 21, for the punishment of persons convicted of Aggravated Assaults on Women and Children.

The House divided:—Ayes 84; Noes 125: Majority 41.