HC Deb 20 February 1873 vol 214 cc743-53

Order for Second Reading read.


in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, it was essentially one of details, and before explaining what he hoped would complete the measures necessary for the supervision of the criminal classes in this country, he might review shortly the legislation which had been passed on the subject. Just 20 years ago, transportation was abandoned with reference to Tasmania:—it was continued to Western Australia, but on a very reduced scale. The Act of 1853, which established penal servitude as a partial substitute for transportation, was amended in 1857; and in 1864, after inquiry by a Royal Commission, an Act was passed which was intended to preserve society from the results of liberating in this country a vast number of criminals who up to that time had been draughted to the colonies. The necessity of the case would be apparent from a review of the enormous number of criminals transported during the period between the years 1830 and 1852. From 1830 to 1839 no less than 41,081 were transported—an average of 4,108 each year; from 1840 to 1849 the number was 32,509, or an average of 3,250; from 1850 to 1852 the number was 8,555, or an average of 2,851. The alarm which the liberation in this country of criminals so numerous excited could not therefore be regarded as matter of surprise. The Penal Servitude Act provided for the liberation of prisoners before their sentence had fully expired, subject to certain conditions; and if those conditions were infringed they would be liable to detention in the convict prison for the full term of their original sentence. In 1867 transportation, which had been gradually diminished, altogether ceased, and it became evident that some new measures should be adopted to prevent an increase of crime, and the danger arising from such increase; and if his predecessor (Mr. G. Hardy) had remained in office, he had no doubt he would have felt it his duty to introduce a measure similar to that which was then proposed. In 1869 the Habitual Criminals Act was passed mainly with the object of speedily arresting those who, having been liberated from gaol, had returned to a life of crime. Its operation had been carefully studied, and many persons having experience in such matters had reported favourably of it; numerous amendments, however, had been suggested, especially by those who had given attention to the reformation of criminals, and the Government had been urged to extend the principle of the measure in some respects. The Prevention of Crime Act, 1871, was the result. It introduced a system of real supervision not only over those who were under sentence of penal servitude, but it also enacted that those who had been more than twice convicted of grave offences should, upon changing their residence, report themselves to the police of the district they were leaving and to the police of the district to which they migrated; and it also deprived them of the presumption of innocence that other members of the community possessed. The results of this Act, as far as they could be ascertained, were detailed in a Paper presented to Parliament at the close of last Session, but it could not be said that the extraordinary diminution of crime then shown had been wholly caused by recent legislation; no doubt many causes had contributed to the result. The supply of criminals had been cut off by the reformatories and industrial schools; emigration had opened a field to those active spirits who would in too many cases have become criminal, and poverty also —that fruitful source of crime—had diminished; education also had no doubt done its part, and an improved system of police also had contributed to this beneficial result. The country was likewise very largely indebted to the Discharged Prisoner's Aid Society, which furnished assistance to those who, when discharged from prison, wished to lead good lives. There could be no question, however, that the increased powers given to the police had had a remarkable effect in diminishing crime. The life of a criminal who was under supervision was one of great danger and difficulty if he still pursued criminal courses—and, indeed, it was almost impossible for a known criminal to persist in the exercise of his vocation. The Government had, at the same time, the fullest evidence that these powers were not so exercised as to interfere with any criminal who desired to turn to an honest life. The Habitual Criminals Act did away with the necessity of a monthly report of himself by the criminal to the police, and this step was taken upon the advice of those who had practical experience of the subject. But after two years' trial a return to the former system was effected by the Prevention of Crimes Act, with this difference—that the license-holder, or person under supervision should not necessarily be obliged to report himself to the police, but might do so to any person approved by the police. This was done in order to diminish the risk of discovering, and thus interfering with, the employment of those who desired to live an honest life. The experience of two years justified these measures, and the diminution of crime which followed their enactment was attributed to them by Judges, Chairmen of Quarter Sessions, Chief Constables, and others engaged in the administration of justice. The greatest number of penal servitude sentences passed in one year was in 1862, when short sentences of three or four years were passed. In 1865, however, these short sentences were abolished, and the minimum sentence of five years substituted. For the purposes of comparison it would be expedient to take a later period. The following were the facts in reference to the diminution of crime during the last four years:—in 1869 there were 2,006 sentences of penal servitude passed; in 1870 the number was 1,788; in 1871 it was 1,628; and in 1872 it was 1,494, showing a reduction of 25 per cent in four years, that reduction being simultaneous with a very large increase of population. It might perhaps, however, be said that though the more serious cases had decreased in number, yet there was no proof that the number of criminal offences had decreased, and that the sentences to penal servitude had decreased in number because Judges could not now send to penal servitude for less than five years. But how was the fact? The statistics of the number of indictable crimes committed would probably be a more sure guide, but they gave the same result. For the year ending the 29th of September, 1869, the indictable crimes committed numbered 58,441, and for the year ending in 1872 the number was 44,191, showing a reduction of 24.3 per cent. The number of persons committed for trial during those years was in 1869, 19,827, which in 1872 fell to 15,164, showing a reduction of 23.5 per cent. In the metropolitan district the diminution of crime had been still more remarkable, and nowhere had the good effects of police supervision been more apparent. In the metropolitan district the decrease of indictable offences had been from 17,918 in 1869, to 12,894 in 1872—a reduction of 28.0 per cent—though there had probably been an increase in the population at the same time of 160,000. There was another very gratifying proof of the diminution of crime during this period. A most important duty of the Secretary of State for the Home Department was to provide for the custody of persons condemned to penal servitude. The cessation of transportation and the increased length of sentences had, of course, produced a sensible increase in the number of persons thus to be provided for, and estimates were transmitted to him from time to time with a view to the making of such provision. On a recent occasion, however, such had been the steady reduction of crime, that the Director of Prisons was able to make an estimate falling short by 700 of the number which he had formerly calculated as necessary to be provided for by those who questioned the diminution of crime. It had been said that concurrently with this decrease in the graver class of crimes there had been an increase in the lesser offences against the law. That, no doubt, was the case. It was a fact which experience demonstrated, that in times of prosperity there always was a decrease in the graver class of offences, while there was an increase in the less grave. He did not suppose that in any times, however prosperous, the number of habitual criminals was really diminished—these persons were usually much opposed to labour, and the mere existence of a greater demand for labourers would not, in all probability, induce them to work—but he had no doubt that times of prosperity had a very great effect in diminishing the number of those who fell into temptation under the pressure of want. Times of prosperity, however, led to much idleness and drunkenness, and therefore to an increase in the number of the minor offences. He felt bound to say that he thought the time was not far distant when Parliament should apply itself to the consideration how these classes of minor offences might best be diminished. We knew by experience that there were persons who had committed 20, 30, 40, and even 100 offences, and a great portion of whose lives was spent in prison. Many who had considered this subject were of opinion that it would be a matter worthy of the attention of Parliament whether accumulated punishments for some of those offences might not properly be inflicted upon habitual offenders. However, although not disinclined to concur in that view, that was not the subject now before the House, which was to amend the existing law with a view to the prevention of the more serious forms of crime and the supervision of criminals. He would now state what were the amendments to be proposed in the Bill, which to some might seem disproportionate to the importance of the facts to which he had just referred. These amendments were intended chiefly to remedy certain defects in the working of the Act of 1871. The Penal Servitude Act of 1864 provided certain punishments for a breach of the conditions set forth in the schedule. A clause in the Act gave the Secretary of State power from time to time to append to the license to be at large, other conditions as well, but did not provide that the punishments named in the Act should follow the breach of the new conditions. The effect of one of the principal clauses contained in the Bill was to provide that the breach of the new conditions which might be imposed by the Secretary of State should be followed by the same consequences as a breach of the conditions specially mentioned in the Act of 1864. The clause gave further effect to the provisions of the Act, by providing that the license might be forfeited for an offence committed before the expiration of the term of penal servitude, notwithstanding that there might not have been a conviction before the expiration of the license. Under the Penal Servitude Act, whenever the holder of a license committed an indictable offence, and was tried again, his license was forfeited, ipso facto; but the Judge was not under the necessity of reporting him to the Secretary of State. Whenever, on the other hand, the holder of a license was summarily convicted, it was incumbent on the magistrate to report this conviction to the Secretary of State, to whom was entrusted the power of further committing him for the unexpired portion of his sentence, or such less period as he might think proper. One of his proposed amendments remedied this discrepancy. The 5th clause was more important. He did not think it was a departure from the principle on which we had hitherto acted, though to some extent it was an enlargement of that principle. The House would remember that under the Prevention of Crimes Act certain offences were visited with certain exceptional consequences. Upon repeated convictions for certain offences there followed the loss of the presumption of innocence. In other words, where a person had been convicted of certain offences, and was found under suspicious circumstances—consorting with thieves, or in the neighbourhood of premises with apparently dishonest intentions—he was put on the defensive and bound to give a satisfactory explanation. In cases where the offence was more serious the Judge had the power of adding a sentence of supervision by the police, and that involved the necessity on the part of the prisoner of reporting himself monthly to the police, and also of reporting himself whenever he moved from one part of his district to another. The object of this clause was not to impose a sentence of supervision, but to withdraw the presumption of innocence from those who within seven years before the passing of the Prevention of Crime Act of 1871 might have been found guilty of the more important offences mentioned in that Act, although they had not been found guilty of any such offence since the passing of the Act. he hoped the House would accept that extension of the principle to which he referred. He believed it would be an advantage, not only to society, but to the offenders themselves, that every obstacle should be thrown in the way of their pursuing a criminal career. The 6th clause provided for an omission in the previous Penal Servitude Acts and the Acts for the Prevention of Crime. These Acts provided that the offender when released from gaol should report himself to the chief officer of police in the district, and also whenever he left the place; but they did not provide that before leaving the gaol he should report where he was going to, and that in case he did not go to the place which he announced as the place of his future residence he should be subject to punishment. This section supplied that omission. It also gave power to a constable to arrest, without warrant, any persons violating that regulation. The 8th clause extended to the children of male offenders the provision made with respect to the children of female prisoners —that is to say, where the father of a child apparently under 14 years of age had been committed under the Act, the child might be sent to an industrial school. This provision had worked well as regarded the children of female convicts, and there was no reason why it should not be extended to those of male convicts. The remaining clauses were of minor importance. He believed the Bill would provide an efficient system of supervision, one which would protect society and would also be to the advantage of the criminal. All must, as Christians and men, desire the reformation of the criminal classes, and, if possible, to enable them to return to society as honest men; they had a selfish interest in that reformation, for it made all the difference to society whether the convict was restored to freedom fitted for a life of industry and honesty, or whether he would continue his former courses. He hoped that this would be the last measure which it would be necessary to pass on this subject, and that sufficient experience had been gathered to justify him in undertaking to consolidate the five Penal Servitude Acts and the Act for the Prevention of Crime as amended by the present Bill. Nothing was more difficult or dangerous than to attempt the consolidation of Acts simultaneously with Amendments of them, but if this Bill passed and its principle received full approval, he should be ready at the earliest opportunity to introduce a measure consolidating all the Acts on this subject. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving that the Bill be now read a second time.


complimented his right hon. Friend on his introduction and judicious administration of the Habitual Criminals Act, which, coupled with the operation of Reformatories and Industrial Schools, had led to so gratifying a decrease in crime, especially during the last two years. They must all feel much indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for his exertions to improve the criminal law, but at the same time he advised the House to be jealous of any extension of the system of police supervision—a system which exposed those who fell under the operation of the criminal law to greater hardships, and involved great dangers, which our forefathers would not have sanctioned; though he was not prepared to say that within its present limits its disadvantages had counterbalanced its advantages. After recommending that the delegation of authority by chief officers of police to other persons should be subject to the approval of the Homo Secretary, or to some other control, the hon. and learned Gentleman complained of the unintelligible way in which the Bill had been drawn, Section 2 referring loosely to "the Penal Servitude Acts or any of them," another section making a wrong reference, and other sections making no reference at all to the Acts which were dealt with. He urged that, were more pains taken in preparing, statutes, the course of business in the House would be more smoothly carried on, while the courts of justice would have much less difficulty in construing them. He suggested the reference of the Bill to a Select Committee, in order that it might come back in a more intelligible form, unless the Government was prepared to introduce carefully considered Amendments.


joined in the remonstrance of the hon. and learned Gentleman as to the difficulty of understanding the precise meaning of the clauses. He was about to make similar remonstrances as his hon. and learned Friend had done with respect to the way in which the provisions of the Bill had been drawn up. Several of those clauses, by their references to other Acts, would defy all reasonable construction—indeed, the Bill was one of the most unintelligible he had ever seen. He was aware that his right hon. Friend intended hereafter to consolidate all these measures, but in the meantime great complication and difficulty would exist. To refer to "licenses under all the Penal Servitude Acts or any of them," would oblige anyone to consult all these statutes—one of them passed nine years ago. In other cases it would be necessary to refer to Acts which were partly repealed, to see how much of them was repealed. This mode of drawing Bills was quite unreasonable. A certain form of words was given to be introduced into another Act, so that two volumes of the statutes would always have to be consulted. These might appear small criticisms, but it was desirable to avoid the recurrence of such comments as had been recently made by some of the Judges on certain statutes. Had his right hon. Friend drawn the Bill he would certainly have given it a more intelligible shape. As it was, no hon. Member could understand it without carefully consulting other statutes. In one clause reference was made to persons subject to supervision in pursuance of the Habitual Criminals Act, without mentioning the particular clause of that Act. [Mr. BRUCE explained that the object was that those under supervision should still remain so.] Clause 6 referred to sections in another Act, necessitating a reference thereto. He was anxious to prevent the measure, in its present shape, going before the learned Judges of the land, so that this House should not again expose itself to the remarks from the Judicial Bench which they had often heard made before—that the Bill had been drawn up with great carelessness, and its provisions were most ambiguous as to their real meaning. There was not a single piece of clear enactment in the Bill. It was all reference, to save the time of the draughtsman and increase the difficulties of the House in legislating and the Judges in interpreting the clauses in the Bill.


said, he had listened with great attention to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bruce), particularly as far as it related to his intentions for the future. He was glad attention had been called to the style in which this Bill was drawn, and he trusted means would be taken by the Government to give in a clear manner information desired by the House and by the Judges. With regard to the class of criminals constantly before the smaller Courts, he hoped the laws affecting them would be codified, and the penalties rendered cumulative.


said, he was sorry to find that the Government continued to follow the bad example of drawing Bills in such a manner that it required "handbooks," and other volumes, to assist in their interpretation. Draughtsmen considered the present mode a very neat way of drawing Bills, but it was sometimes done so neatly that the draughtsman did not always clearly know what he had done, and it was quite clear that when the Acts required interpretation the Judges found it almost impossible to do so satisfactorily. He saw no possible advantage in legislating in that manner, and in referring an unfortunate magistrate from one Act of Parliament to another in order to make out what the law was. Hardly an Act passed that did not sin in that way; and he really hoped that the Government would set an example by adopting better habits, so that they might have Acts passed which there was some chance of people understanding.


said, the Bill of 1871, in one of its clauses, bore hardly on dealers in old metals, and he wished to know whether that would be remedied in the present Bill or by a future measure?


said, the subject referred to by the last speaker would be dealt with in a separate Bill this Session. With regard to the chorus of disapprobation which they had heard against the draughtsmen, no doubt that Bill was a very favourable specimen for the opponents of those gentlemen to pitch upon, because, as his right hon. Friend (Mr. Bruce) had explained, that measure was intended to be preparatory to a consolidation Bill, which would afterwards be introduced. Its was essential, if they meant to consolidate the law, that the amendments made in it should be distinguished from its consolidation. That Bill had the advantage that in the clearest manner it drew attention to each particular amendment about to be made in the law which they wished to consolidate. If they were to adopt the principle that they were never to make any enactment by reference, but always to repeat the whole enactment, all their Bills would be a kind of "house that Jack built," and their legislation would be extremely cumbrous and inconvenient, as well as far more unintelligible to ordinary minds. Every one of the clauses in that Bill, however intricate they might seem, had been passed with the object of calling the attention of the House to the specific amendment of the Act which each clause was intended to carry out.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Thursday next.