HC Deb 19 June 1872 vol 211 cc1972-7

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that the Committee which sat upon the subject of Infanticide last year examined many important witnesses, including the Recorders of Manchester and Middlesex and Mr. Serjeant Relf, who had had great experience in cases of infanticide, and who brought Margaret Waters to justice. That Committee recommended that the bastardy laws should be amended for the better protection of infant life; and it was from that point of view that he now desired to approach the subject. The chief object of the Bill was to enlarge the discretion of the magistrates with regard to the granting of bastardy orders. Under the existing law, if a seducer absconded to the colonies or to a foreign country the mother of the illegitimate child was perfectly helpless; and from the evidence of Mrs. Main, the excellent lady superintendent of the Refuge for Deserted Mothers and their Infants in Great Coram Street, it was found that in only 3 per cent in 1,000 of these cases did the father contribute anything towards the support of his bastard children. It was proposed by the Bill that at any time within 12 months after the return of the seducer proceedings might be taken against him before the Justices, provided he had absconded within 12 months after the birth of the child. By the existing law a hard-and-fast line was fixed with reference to the amount to be awarded to the mother of the bastard child, and in ordinary cases that amount was rigidly limited to 2s. 6d. per week; but the evidence before the Committee showed that it was quite impossible to maintain an infant for a week upon so small a sum, and that that rigid limitation led to infanticide. The mother had this alternative placed before her—either to maintain her child or to destroy it, for otherwise she could not possibly go to service. She could not maintain her child, and so she de- stroyed it. Again, under the existing law the mother could only recover for 13 weeks of arrears, and if she married her husband was obliged to support her bastard children. The last-mentioned provision was a direct restraint on marriage, and was therefore contrary to public policy. It was proposed by the present Bill to alter these two points in accordance with the sentiments of humanity and of justice. Then under the law of 1834 the mother was liable for the maintenance of her bastard child until it attained the age of 16 years; but her bastardy order, if she obtained one, expired when the child attained the age of 13, and it was now proposed to do away with that anomaly. Again, if such a child became chargeable to the rates, under the law of 1844 the guardians were unable to relieve the ratepayers of the cost of its maintenance; but an alteration was made in that respect by an Act passed in 1868, and now the guardians could attach the money obtained under the bastardy order in the hands of the mother for the relief of the ratepayers. It was proposed by the present Bill to extend that principle. If the mother did not take action under the existing law, there was no way of relieving the ratepayers. It was now proposed to give to the guardians, as was the case in Ireland, the power of initiating proceedings for the relief of the ratepayers; but the amount to be obtained by them would be rigidly limited to the amount necessary for the actual cost of the maintenance and education of the child. There was one other provision in the Bill which happened to correspond with a proposal which the Government had made, which was that the age of girls to which criminal liability for their seduction should attach should be raised from 12 to 14 years. Under the existing law consent might be shown where the girl was more than 12 years of age; but it was now proposed to raise the limit of age, during which consent would be immaterial, to 14 years. Unfortunately, in many cases, seduction occurred between the ages of 12 and 14. He maintained that the result of this amendment of the law would be two-fold—it would cause a decrease in infanticide, because the mother would be able to put out her child to nurse, under the Infant Life Protection Bill, with a respectable woman and go out to service herself; and it would also decrease immorality by exposing the seducer to the liability of paying for his illegitimate offspring; and penalties upon the seducer were more likely to discourage immorality than severe and oppressive laws upon the seduced.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Charley.)


said, he was not aware that any measure of this kind was required; and he certainly thought that some limit ought to be fixed, in Committee on the Bill, to the amount for which the putative father of the child should be held liable. It would be extremely unwise to invest the magistrates with an unlimited discretion in these cases.


thought that some amount of discretion, at all events larger than they possessed at present, ought to be given to the magistrates. Indeed, he thought that unlimited power might be given to them with great safety, for they would not be likely to abuse it. With regard to the age to which criminal liability should attach for seduction, he approved of the provision in the Bill, and he thought it might well be applied in cases of indecent assault. It was absurd to talk of the "consent" of a child of eight or ten in such cases.


said, he trusted the promoter of the Bill would consent to limit the discretion of the magistrates as to the allowance to be made to the mother of a bastard child, for care should be taken not to hold out inducements to a woman to allow herself to be seduced because the whole maintenance of the child would be thrown on the father.


said, that as one connected with a public institution which had to deal with questions of this nature, he did not think the Bill went far enough, because the difficulty of a woman recovering anything for the injuries done her were now almost insuperable. Gross cases of seduction came under his notice for which there was little or no remedy—a state of things which he hoped would soon be removed.


said, that the great sufferers in such cases were the women, and he thought that an unlimited discretion might be left to the magistrates as to the amount of allowance to be given by the father of an illegitimate child, for he thought they could very well judge whether or not the mother was an abandoned woman, and give their award accordingly.


said, he would at once admit that on that subject it was natural that the feelings of hon. Members should go with the suffering party; but he trusted the House would regard the matter in reference to the general interests of society. If hon. Members looked back to the investigations which were made before the introduction of the New Poor Law and to the evils which existed then, they would be cautious how they moved on the path which might lead to similar results, and how they took too wide steps in the interest of one party, which might have the effect of encouraging the very vice they wished to put an end to. In 1834 there were many persons who arrived at the conclusion that the old law on the subject required to be abolished, on the ground that the payments made to the mothers of illegitimate children were conducive to immorality, and instances were adduced where women, who had transgressed two or three times, were actually sought in marriage on account of the endowment resulting from the orders granted by the magistrates. He stated that circumstance in order to prevent the House rushing rashly to a conclusion on this subject. With regard to the Bill, he thought the two first clauses very complicated and difficult to be understood; but there were points in the Bill well worthy of consideration in Committee, and he therefore deemed it desirable that the Bill should be read a second time. He, however, warned the House not to yield to the rash conclusions to which the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Candlish) appeared inclined to yield.


said, he was of opinion that the Bill deserved the favourable consideration of the House, for there could be no doubt that women in these cases were entitled to more than they now received.


said, he thought the thanks of the country and of that House were due to the hon. and learned Member for Salford for introducing the measure. At the same time, though he considered the sum which a magistrate could order to be paid to the mother of a bastard child was at present too small, he trusted the House would not be induced to go too far in a contrary direction. He thought that provision might be made in the present Bill to enable women to follow up the fathers of their bastard children, for at present they were put to great expense in that attempt, and trusted that the question of criminal assault would not be mixed up as proposed by the Bill with the question of seduction, which belonged to a totally different branch of the law.


said, he had great pleasure in congratulating the hon. and learned Member for Salford on the reception which his Bill had met with, and although he thought the warning of his right hon. Friend (Mr. G. Hardy) well worth listening to, yet, speaking his own individual opinion, he was prepared to go so far as to say that the time had come when they ought to review the former Poor Law Acts on the subject of affiliation orders. The points raised by the Bill were all worthy of discussion, and there was hardly any one of them on which some amendments in the existing law might not be made. There was much to be said against any arbitrary limit on the amount of allowance to be awarded by the magistrates; but in dealing with cases of summary jurisdiction, it would be well to consider whether some limit might not be imposed in that respect, or some right of appeal given in the event of any extravagant allowance being ordered. He saw no objection to the proposal that when the mother of a bastard child had not obtained an order from a magistrate, the Poor Law Guardians might get an order and apply the proceeds to the maintenance of the child. He was glad to give his support to the principle of the Bill; but he reserved for himself liberty of action when the Bill came to be discussed clause by clause in Committee.


said, he thought the present bastardy laws had very much to do with the fearful increase of infanticide; and was glad that though the House had elected in one way to check that evil, that they were now about to do that, which in another direction would have a much greater effect in stopping that fearful crime. It was impossible to look at the bastardy laws without seeing that they bore very hardly on women, and he was glad to see any attempt in the direction in which it was now proposed to go, for he felt certain that since the enactment of the existing law 35 years ago, though the births of illegitimate children had decreased, the crime of infanticide had increased in a far greater proportion. It was impossible to consider the position in which these poor unfortunate women were placed without feeling that the law held out a temptation too strong for human nature to stand against. He was, therefore, glad that an attempt was made to amend the law, for they must all regard with shame and horror the amount of infanticide which had occurred during the last two years. He trusted that the present and other measures would tend to check that crime and to relieve the country from the disgrace which rested on it.


said, the maintenance of bastard children fell too heavily on local rates; but he thought that unlimited power as to the allowance to be paid by the fathers of bastard children should not be given to the magistrates.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Friday 12th July.