HC Deb 25 June 1873 vol 216 cc1374-8

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving "That the Bill be now read the second time," said, that the short time which remained would only allow him to say a very few words in asking the attention of the House to this Bill. Almost everyone knew the extent to which the money-lenders' conspiracy was carried on against young men and boys by the issue in extraordinary numbers of circulars and letters tempting them to borrow money. If these things were confined to the sons of rich men, or even to expectant heirs, it was not probable that he would have interfered in the matter; but he claimed the sympathy of the House on behalf of the parents of professional and struggling men, who, striving to meet the expenses of a public school or University education for their sons, found them exposed to these insidious and unprincipled temptations. Money-lenders' circulars were sent to the merest boys at public and private schools, and if time allowed he would relate to the House some of the strange facts that had been communicated to him. Now, in every civilized country, from the time of the Romans downwards, the law had endeavoured to give some protection to minors, and it was worthy of remark that the lex Lœtoria which dealt with the subject, was instituted in consequence of the mischief wrought by a noted money-lender. The present Bill had for its basis, in common with the Roman law, the institution of guardians; land it rendered it a misdemeanour to make loans, or to aid in procuring loans for gain, for those who were in the eye of the law infants, without the consent of their parents or guardians. According to the present law such loans were void ab initio, and could not be recovered at Common Law; and the main provisions of the Bill were merely directed to carrying out effectually that protection which the ingenuity of the money-lender enabled him to destroy. The most notable device was to induce a young man who had been inveigled into the money-lender's den to acquiesce in an admission that he was of age, although the money-lender perfectly well knew that he was not, and then by holding over the victim the terrors of the criminal law for obtaining money under false pretences to get a secure hold over the borrower. The Bill provided that no such plea as that could be urged against a minor in any Court of Law, and the effect would be to make the lender careful whom he trusted, and to require in doubtful cases corroborative evidence, such as a certificate of birth, before he parted with his money. No doubt, that and other clauses in the Bill would meet with hostile criticism; but he wished emphatically to say, that the Bill was not an example of amateur legislation, but had been drawn by two of the most competent and distinguished practising lawyers of the day; and, in his opinion—if a lay Member of Parliament, who might conceive that an alteration in any law could be advantageously made did, to the best of his ability, make himself master of the subject, and obtain the counsel and assistance of eminent jurists and experienced Members of the House, he had done everything in his power to secure himself from the charge of presumption in proposing changes in the law. Experience showed, and it was not in accordance with human nature that it should be otherwise, that great improvements in the law did not always spring from the legal profession itself. He trusted, therefore, that the House would not allow the Bill to be talked out, but would give it a second reading, and he could promise that those whose names were on its back were most anxious to profit by and to adopt any improvements that might be made in Committee. He would conclude by moving the second reading of the Bill.

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


said, he regretted the absence of the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich (Mr. West), who had put a Notice on the Paper for the rejection of the Bill. Legislation for the protection of children and young persons was rather the fashion just now, and the hon. and learned Member for Salford (Mr. Charley) had passed a Bill relating to those deserted bantlings who were found on the doorsteps of houses wrapped up in a portion of The Daily Telegraph. He yielded to no one in detestation of the practices against which this Bill was directed, but it was impossible that such a measure could become law. Under the present law, if a minor made a contract, it could not be enforced against him if he set up a plea of infancy, nor would it be any answer to the plea of infancy if the money-lender said—"You told me you were of age." The infant could upset the contract if he did not, after he came of age, confirm it. That was a very considerable protection, and it might be advisable to go still further. But, under the Bill, any person making or procuring to be made a loan to an infant, without the written consent of his father or guardian, was liable to fine or imprisonment. What would be the effect of that in the case of an infant, without either father or guardian, who might wish to make a contract highly for his own benefit—say for his advancement in life? Then, again, under Clause 10, no representation made by an infant as to his age was to be used in evidence against him in any Court or proceeding. Why, that would be holding out an inducement to a young man to say that which was false. Was such a clause ever inserted in an Act of Parliament before? The effect would be to subject a particular class—the moneylenders and bill discounters—to criminal proceedings. But were there not other classes quite as bad—the unscrupulous shopkeepers, for example, who persuaded young men to order goods they did not want and could not pay for; or quack doctors, who preyed upon young men quite as much as money-lenders? He could not help characterizing the Bill as most absurd, for the Legislature could not transfer to the criminal law matters which essentially belonged to the civil law. How far would it be necessary to go, moreover, if Parliament undertook to protect all the infants and all the idiots in the world? There were many men of 60 who were greater idiots than boys of 15. Let him point out another class of persons who required protection, and let the hon. Member for Galway County (Mr. Mitchell Henry) bring in a Bill to protect young men against the solicitation of importuning mothers who too often, in the language of the Preamble, "induce such infants to enter, improvidently and recklessly, into onerous contracts" which often turned out quite as detrimental to the interests of the young men as those contracts against which the hon. Member wished to protect them.


as the father of a family, thanked the hon. Gentleman the Member for Galway County (Mr. Mitchell Henry) who had brought in the Bill. Letters from money-lenders had long been known at the Universities, but they were now sent to the public schools—Eton, Rugby, Harrow, &c.—and boys of 13, 14, and 15 years of age were excited by these offers to every species of abomination and extravagance. He would admit that this Bill would not hold water, yet he should support the second reading, in the hope that it might be amended in Committee.


also thanked the hon. Member for Galway County (Mr. Mitchell Henry) for the attempt he had made to stop this growing abuse. He knew from undoubted authority, that these practices had done much mischief in the University of Cambridge, and the heads of that University believed much good would result from its adoption.


said, he wished to express the opinion that the House would not succeed in any efforts to make people virtuous by the coercion of the criminal law. He was not prepared to say that the acts dealt with by the Bill were crimes; and he was strongly opposed to the introduction of new crimes to the law of the country. It was, moreover, by no means certain that the Bill would have any effect in preventing this particular class of offences?


said, that the question was not whether these practices were an evil, but whether the Bill would not be a much greater evil than that which it attempted to counteract. He had known a great many very "rum" transactions on the part of borrowers as well as lenders. Under the Bill a young man might swear till he was black in the face that he was of age, when he was a minor, in order to persuade the lender to advance him money, and then he was to go scot free. Such a law would breed up a generation of liars and swindlers. An infant of that kind might get a man's money, and then the wretched individual might be subjected notwithstanding to a penalty of £20 or two month's imprisonment. But that was not all. If the money was for the "bonâ fide advantage and benefit" of the young man, then all the provisions of the Bill were null and void. What a pretty thing that would be to have to ascertain! He could not imagine a wider or more difficult question to decide. Suppose a young man in the Army was in danger of losing his commission if he could not raise a certain sum; or, suppose it Was necessary for him to pay his College dues; or suppose he was threatened with an action for seduction or breach of promise, and it was thought to be a benefit to him to get some money to stop the scandal.

And it being a quarter of an hour before Six of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned till To-morrow.

House adjourned at ten minutes before Six o'clock.