HC Deb 19 July 1882 vol 272 cc1019-31

Order for Second Reading read.


rose to a point of Order. On a previous oc- casion the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair had ruled that the second reading of a measure of which he had charge could not be debated because the Bill was not printed. As the Bill now before the House had not been printed, he wished to know whether it was competent for the House to debate its second reading?


I do not think that I have ever decided from the Chair, as stated by the hon. Member, that a Bill not having been printed could not be debated. I might have said that it was very unusual to proceed with a Bill that was not printed; but I could not interfere and say that it was not open to the House to proceed with that Bill, if it thought proper, although not printed.


I believe I will not be in Order in moving that a certain part of the House usually occupied by ladies should be cleared; but to give the reporters a well-earned holiday, I have to direct 3'our attention, Sir, to the fact that Strangers are present.


Does the hon. Member desire to take notice of the presence of Strangers?


Yes; I rise for that purpose. If necessary, I will move that Strangers be ordered to withdraw.


I should like to ask, Sir, if the Galleries being cleared would also have the effect of clearing the Ladies' Gallery?


The hon. Member asks me whether an order to exclude Strangers will exclude ladies from the Ladies' Gallery. I am bound to say it would not.


Then, for the purpose of calling attention to the matter, I spy Strangers present, and shall proceed to a division.


Before I put the Question I think it right to say that if the House should resolve to exclude Strangers the effect would be that Strangers in the Gallery and Reporters for the Press would be excluded, but no one would be excluded from the Ladies' Gallery. At the same time, if the hon. Member insists on pressing the Motion I am bound to put it.


I hope, Sir, if the House decides to exclude Strangers, that those who occupy the Ladies' Gallery will take the hint.


The Question is that Strangers be ordered to withdraw. [Cries of "Aye, aye !"and "No, no !"] I think the Noes have it. [Cries of "The Ayes have it."] Will the hon. Member name another Teller?


Colonel Alexander.

The House divided: — Ayes 36; Noes 173: Majority 137.—(Div. List, No. 280.)


Some reference having been made to the presence of ladies, I think it right to state that in 1876, when a similar Order of the Day was before the House, my attention was called to the presence of ladies on that occasion, and I used these words— I may state for the information of the House that there are two Galleries of this House appropriated to the use of ladies. One of these is under my direct control; and, having regard to the subject-matter of the first Order of the Day, I have directed that Gallery to be closed." With regard to the other Gallery, as the House is aware, it is available for the use of the friends of Members, under the orders of Members in the usual manner. I have not felt myself at liberty to close that Gallery; but I have desired the messenger in attendance to inform all ladies who may present themselves there of the nature of the subject about to be discussed. If after that caution they think proper to insist upon admittance, I do not feel at liberty, without the authority of the House, to exclude them. I may state that on this occasion I have given similar instructions to the Sergeant-at-Arms.


I beg to move that ladies should be excluded from the Gallery.


seconded the Motion, but the Question was not put from the Chair.


I do not intend to trespass unduly upon the kindness or attention of the House on this occasion. I was not aware until this moment that the Bill had not been printed, and I apologize to the House for the omission. I may, perhaps, be permitted to explain that it arose in this way. When I brought in the Bill I was literally on the eve, myself, of a serious illness, and since then, as those who know me know, my mind has been pre-occupied by domestic anxieties of no ordinary kind. But the Bill itself, as hon. Members know perfectly well, is one simply for the absolute repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. It raises a question of principle; and as far as I am concerned, and as far as those who advocate it are concerned, we have not felt that our functions went further than to propound the principle of the repeal of the existing legislation, leaving it to the responsible Government of the time to make what proposals they might think necessary to meet the exigencies of the case. I should be in yet another difficulty if I proposed to trespass too long on the attention of the House, or to go into any exhaustive discussion of this complicated subject with regard to which such different opinions obtain. If I were to endeavour to do so, speaking with the utmost conciseness consistent with lucidity, I could not conclude before the day's Sitting had terminated. I should think it unfair, and not a gentlemanly act on my part, so to exhaust the time and patience of the House, and therefore I shall not do it. Further than this, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War has given Notice of moving, not a negative upon the second reading of this Bill, but "the Previous Question." And I do not think I misinterpret his intention and that of the Government when I say that they are not based on any unfavourable opinion on the subject of the repeal; but upon the consideration that a Committee is yet sitting upstairs to consider this question, and that it would not be convenient to the House to decide a question of this kind before that Committee had presented its Report. So far as I am concerned I entirely admit the difficulty of the position; but I say with regard to it that that Committee has been sitting for nearly four Sessions, and that until quite lately I had every reason to believe that it would have been able to report, and that it could have reported before this date. I know I should be transgressing the Rules of the House were I to discuss the causes of the long delay which has occurred in the proceedings of the Committee during the present Session of Parliament; and therefore I merely refer to the matter as a reason why, for my own part, I have not felt it incumbent on me, or right for me, to withdraw this Bill. But I do not deny the force of the argument which the right hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly put forward; and what I propose, therefore, with the leave of the House, is, not exhaustively to discuss this question, but to do two things, and two things only—first of all to make clear if I can the essential point of view taken by us who oppose this legislation; secondly, to remove some misconception, if it exists, as to the legislation which it would be possible for us to accept; and, lastly, I would venture to point out to my right hon. Friend, to the Government, and the House, some special obligations and responsibilities of this Government and of certain Members of this Government, and I will make an appeal to them when the proper time comes to take up this question. I have said that there have been very long delays. The Acts in question were passed in the years 1866 and 1869, and in 1870–1 a Royal Commission sat upon them and reported unfavourably to the continuance of the existing Acts. Again, a period of agitation came up, and the subject was discussed throughout the country. The Committee which is still sitting was appointed during the Government of the late Lord Beaconsfield, was re-appointed on the assembly of the present Parliament, and has sat up to this day; and during that period all those who are so deeply interested in and conversant with this subject, both in the House and out of it, have, to a certain extent, felt themselves bound and restrained in their action; and, therefore, I think it right to say that there will be very considerable disappointment and a strong feeling excited in their minds, when they find that there is to be no action upon the Report of the Committee in the present Session of Parliament. But I find no fault—I should not be entitled to do so—with this condition of things. All I ask the House is, to be allowed to make an explanation and a statement, the limits of which I have already defined. Now, the Acts provide hospitals for the treatment of venereal diseases in some districts which are called subjected or protected districts. It is often supposed that we who oppose these Acts are unfavourable to the provision of hospitals and medical appliances for the treatment or cure of these diseases on the ground that they are the consequence of sexual vice. Well, many other diseases are the consequence of vice of one kind or another; and what I wish to say is, that those who oppose this legislation do not object to the treatment and cure of disease and the prevention and mitigation of its sufferings. On the contrary, it is their conviction that when these Acts are repealed, and arrangements of the right kind are applied to the country at large, the amount of provision for the treatment of these diseases will be greatly increased, and it will be increased with the approval and assent of those who object to the existing legislation. Moreover, they have no fear whatsoever, as far I have been able to judge of their minds and opinions, that provisions for the treatment of disease, properly afforded and managed, need or would tend to the promotion of vice; on the contrary, they are under the conviction, derived particularly from the personal experience of those who have been connected with voluntary institutions for the purpose, that they may be so managed as to conduce to the diminution of vice and to the promotion of temperance and virtue amongst the population. But there is one principle in these Acts to which we who are opposed to them are irreconcilably opposed; and it is my duty to state to the House that we act from so strong a conviction of absolute duty that we cannot conceive any circumstances under which we should feel justified in relinquishing our opposition to this legislation. This statement I make in no spirit of threat. I think it right as a matter of honesty to say so much to the House. The House knows from the past history of other questions and movements that when you find in this country a large number of serious, earnest, moral, and high-minded men and women absolutely convinced of the moral iniquity of a given legislation, no Parliamentary or other defeats can succeed in extinguishing their convictions, their self-sacrifice, and their zeal in the direction of what they believe to be right. And, therefore, I think this House and the Government ought to take this into account that unless in some way or other the evil principle, to which I have referred, and to which these earnest people object, can be removed from this legislation, this legislation can have no peace until it is repealed. What is the objectionable principle? It is the principle of compulsion; applied in this way—the compulsory registration and the compulsory examination of women of a certain class, for the purpose of ascertaining if they are physically fit for the life which they lead, and with the view of compulsorily committing them to and detaining them in hospitals, if they are found to be diseased, until such time as they are cured. Well, I say in the simplest possible language to the Members of this House that this is a proposition of law which is abhorrent to our notions of justice and of morality, and, I will add, of religion itself; and it would be impossible for me, as long as I remain a Member of this House, or even if I were not a Member of this House—as long as I live and breathe— to refrain from fulfilling what I should feel to be the duty incumbent upon me of opposing a principle imported into our legislation, inconsistent with the very basis of morality, and with the religion which we profess. Now, that is the principle which must be got rid of, and which cannot be got rid of by any mere amendment of these laws. It is supposed that the ideal benefits which people imagine—as I believe without foundation—to flow from this legislation could not be obtained without the importation of this principle of compulsory legislation. I will not discuss that point now; that would be to go into the evidence which the Committee received this Session, and I am not entitled to take that course; but I will express my conviction that whatever ideal benefits may be supposed to have followed from the operation of these Acts, greater benefit to the country at large may easily be secured by a system not involving compulsion, and not open to the moral objections which I now represent to-day. Now, I want to make an appeal to Her Majesty's Government. They have a certain general responsibility in this matter, in that we have come to a deadlock from which nothing we can do can extricate us, but from which they can and ought to extricate us, and let me show what that deadlock is. When these Acts were originally passed, a good deal was said about promoting efficiency in the Army and Navy; but I beg leave to say that, after the examination of witnesses which has taken place before a Royal Commission and this Committee, we shall not hear very much of that. I do not think that in the future any Government or this House would be prepared to place such exceptional legislation as this upon so narrow a ground. Well, then, I pass that by, and come to the ground on which the most ardent advocates of this legislation have defended it—namely, the hope of stamping out a certain special venereal disease which is said to affect permanently the constitutions of men and of generations yet unborn. What I want to put to the Government and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War is, that if that is the ground on which you defend this legislation, then you cannot restrict it within its present limits. Upon that principle you are bound logically, and in common honesty, to extend these supposed hygienic benefits to the rest of the community, and not to confine them to specific and limited districts, to Army and Navy districts. If your strong ground is not the ground of Army and and Navy efficiency—and I deny that it is a strong ground—but the extinction of a peculiar disease—then it is impossible for you to rest where you are, and you must be prepared to propose the extension of these Acts to the country at large. I think I may say, without trenching upon the Rules of the House and referring only to the evidence of previous Sessions, that I have not met with a single witness in favour of the existence of these Acts, who was not also in favour of their extension. Well, Sir, it is known, and hon. Members know, that these Acts could not be extended to the country at large, that the country would not stand it, and that this House would not pass the measure; and this House knows, or ought to know, that if these Acts were to be brought forward now for the first time they could not be passed. They were passed in former days almost in silence, with great rapidity; I may say they were "Lobbied" through the House; but now that public opinion is awakened upon this subject, I say fearlessly, without the slightest fear of rational contradiction, that it would be impossible now for this or any Government to pass these Acts. That is the position in which we are placed. If the Acts are maintained they must be extended; but they cannot be extended, and therefore they must be repealed. But the House is perfectly familiar with the difficulties, almost amounting to impossibilities, of a private Member seeking to enact or get any legislation repealed; and the argument, therefore, to Her Majesty's Government is—and I hope my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War when he speaks will agree with me—that when this Committee has reported, the Government will have to acknowledge some special responsibility upon them to got us out of this deadlock. I do not think that when that time comes my right hon. Friend, if he has to deal with the question, will be in any insuperable difficulty. As far as I am concerned, my conviction is that these Acts are the greatest hygienic imposture we have ever known. I believe they have done no hygienic good, and at the proper time I shall hope to demonstrate that to the minds of hon. Members who, if I may say so, seem to require enlightenment upon this subject. But however that may be, whatever modicum of benefit, hygienic or in respect of order, may be believed to have resulted from these Acts, what I do point out to the House and the Government is this—that precisely the same results are to be found in parts of the country, towns, and cities, where these Acts do not apply; and I cite the well-known case of the city of Glasgow, where all the benefits supposed to have been attributable (I think wrongly) to the Acts themselves have been obtained without any compulsory system at all. I have only one or two words more to say to the Government and to my right hon. Friend. I have spoken of the general responsibility of the Government in this matter; but there are also personal responsibilities to which, perhaps, I may without offence refer. I will not read the list of right hon, and hon. Gentlemen who have, year after year, voted for the repeal of the Acts; but will merely remark that I do not think they can have turned their back on the opinions which they entertained formerly on this subject. I interpret the votes given by the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War as nothing else than an admission that "we cannot stand where we are," and that interpretation I think I am entitled to put upon them. Well, then, I hope these obligations will be recognized, and I address a further argument to the Prime Minister. During all this period of delay, while many good people have become sick, but not faint at heart, from disappointment and from hope deferred, the hope so long deferred has largely centred upon him. Those I refer to have felt—and I think they have rightly felt—that with my right hon. Friend the question of morals is ever present; they know his view and that of another right hon. Friend of mine, unhappily no longer a Member of this Administration, that the moral law ought to be applied to the acts of nations as well as to the actions of individuals;" and I must say to him that they, at least, can never admit any doubt or question as to the "application of that law." Sir, I will go no further upon this occasion; but I ask of the Government, in moving the "Previous Question," to give what assurance they may feel justified in giving that they accept these responsibilities, and will deal with this question with the least possible delay.

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


The whole House has listened with great respect and great attention to the speech of my right hon. Friend, and I think I shall have the judgment of every one present with me when I say that nobody could have addressed himself to the task which he has undertaken with greater knowledge and with greater weight. He has put his case before the House in the best and most appropriate light. My right hon. Friend's proposal is simply this—he recommends to the House, on the present occasion, to repeal absolutely the several Acts in the Statute Book dealing with the prevalence of venereal disease amongst our soldiers and sailors, and tending to diminish that disease. My right hon. Friend has said nothing about what he thought would follow, except that he assumes that the initiative would rest with the Government to propose something, because it was impossible for private Members to do it; but all that he indicated was that there might follow some increased expense in the nature of provision for hospitals appropriated for dealing with this particular disease in other parts of the country than those Lock Hospitals at present used where the Acts are at present in force. Now, Sir, to meet the Motion of my right hon. Friend, I have put down a Motion to move the "Previous Question," and my hon. Friend admits that I could not have done otherwise. The facts as to these Acts have been sketched, and correctly sketched, by my right hon. Friend. He brought us down to the present time and I shall not refer to anything except the last four years. In 1879, on the Motion of a late Member of the House, who shared my right hon. Friend's strong feelings upon this question, a Committee was appointed with the entire concurrence of the late Government. That Committee met in 1879; met again in 1880; and met again in 1881; and I think I shall not transgress the Rule of the House as to references to proceedings of a Committee when I say that in the present Session that Committee has closed its evidence; that its Chairman has in course of preparation a Report, and that, in all probability, that Report will be discussed and settled in the next few weeks. Those, I believe, are the facts about which there can be no dispute. What I recommend is that the House should wait for the Report of the Committee. They have taken a large amount of evidence; I am told that about 30,000 Questions have been asked by the Committee during the years that it has sat; and I recommend hon. Members to read that Report and as much of the evidence as they are prepared to go through before arriving at any opinion on the question. I venture to say that it would be, not an intentional, but a practical affront to a Committee, if after they have spent a great deal of time in discussing the particular question — no less than four years—and have with great diligence collected a vast amount of material to enable a judgment to be arrived at, this House should anticipate their Report and determine to adopt some legislation, whatever it might be, either in the direction of continuing or repealing the Acts, or in the direction of extension. I must say, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, what is the course we must take in the matter. I will not refer at all, although my right hon. Friend has referred, to the opinions which different Members of the Government as well as myself have expressed in past years. I prefer to take the line of expressing no opinion upon this subject upon this occasion. I should be wrong if I did so; because whatever opinion I may have formed of the evidence which came before me, whether in Office or out of Office, in former years, it would be my duty now to approach the subject without any bias whatever, and to devote myself when the Report of the Committee appears to carefully studying, not only the words of that Report, but the evidence on which that Report is founded; and therefore I shall not, on the present occasion, express ever so remotely any opinion upon the proposals of my right hon. Friend. I will keep myself absolutely free, and keep my Colleagues absolutely free, to decide as we may think fit, after considering that Report and the evidence, what course we should recommend to Parliament; and I will only say now what the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government has said as to the impossibility of stating to Parliament what proposals they may make in any future Session until we know what facilities we are given for discussing them. On the other hand, it will be our business to go thoroughly into this question, and, if we consider that the law ought to be altered, to make a proposal to Parliament for that alteration. On these grounds, and on these grounds only, without in the least going into the matter of the Bill itself, I feel it my duty simply to move the "Previous Question."

Previous Question proposed, "That that Question be now put."—(Mr. Childers.)


I do not know whether it is necessary to say anything in support of the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman. It does appear, without reference to the Main Question, that, under the circumstances, the position of the Report of the Committee, and this Bill not having been even circulated, and the general circumstances of the case, the course proposed by the right hon. Gentleman is the right one, and that which ought to be taken by the House.


I should like to say one or two words. I have every wish to bear testimony to the extremely moderate and careful speech of the right hon. Gentleman. He said one or two words with regard to the postponement of the Report, with reference to which I wish to make a remark. One is not at liberty to go into what takes place upstairs during a Sitting of the Committee; but I do not think that any Member, whatever opinions he may hold on the Main Question, who was present at our last meeting, will be disposed to blame anyone for the non-appearance of the Report at this time. In fact, the understanding was that a day considerably later than to-day would be the earliest date at which it could be reasonably expected that the Report could be ready, and that possibly even some additional time would be necessary. There are many points in the right hon. Gentleman's speech to which some Members of the Committee may be disposed to take exception; but it would be particularly unbecoming in me to discuss them, inasmuch as in future Sittings of the Committee, it may be my duty to hold the scales between contending parties on these very points. Previous Question, "That that Question be now put, "put, and negatived.