HC Deb 18 February 1887 vol 311 cc115-27

Order for Second Heading read.

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

MR. ADDISON (Ashton-under-Lyne)

, in rising to move the second reading of this Bill, said, I do not think that it is one which will promote any sort of opposition from any part of the House; indeed, it is one that has already received the sanction of this House, and been read a third time. It is to do away with an inconvenience which those who have to administer justice sometimes feel when they have brought before them persons accused of offences for the first time, and against whom the offences are proved. Often a youth who has committed some offence, or a servant girl w-ho has been guilty of a slight act of pilfering, is brought up and although the case is proved, the magistrates feel very strongly the cruelty of sending such offender to prison, thus making him or her one of the criminal class, and subjecting him or her to the contaminations of the prison surroundings. This modest Bill merely proposes to give the magistrates the power — not to compel them—when a person is brought before them for the first time charged with an off ence punishable with imprisonment only, to direct that he shall be conditionally released upon probation of good conduct. I believe that legislation of this kind is in operation, in some of the American States—in the State of Massachusetts for instance—and I am told that, quite lately, Bills of this kind were passed in some of our own Colonies. I hope there will be no opposition at all to the second reading, which I now beg to move.

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

MR. BEADLAUGH (Northampton)

Mr. Speaker, in supporting the second reading, I will trouble the House with but few observations. The object of all legislation in relation to crime should be to prevent future crime, not merely to inflict punitive vengeance, and it is because I feel that this Bill proceeds in that direction that I desire to support it. The efforts already made in the direction of reformation have diminished crime. I connect that diminution of crime in the last few years more particularly to the progress of education. This salutary effect of education is increasing, as shown by the remarks of the various Judges of Assize. I believe this Bill will so protect some people from being rendered permanently criminal by the contagion of imprisonment, and therefore I heartily support it.

MR. SCLATER - BOOTH (Hants, Basingstoke)

Sir, I think the House is indebted to my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Addison) for introducing this Bill; but I should be glad to hear from my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Matthews) whether he is able to support it as it at present stands, or whether he thinks it requires any amendment. In my opinion, many criminals are sent to prison who would be much better out on probation; and I do not think there is the danger which used to be apprehended of the people whom the Bill is intended to benefit being at large. I trust the Secretary of State will be able to see his way to support the Bill.


Sir, I must admit I have had some difficulty in understanding what the objects of the framers of this Bill are. I think my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Addison), who moved the second reading, must be aware that by the Summary Conviction Act, 1879, all Courts of Summary Jurisdiction have very much the power he proposes to confer upon them. A Court of Summary Jurisdiction may now, without proceeding to a conviction, dismiss any information which is laid before them and order the person charged to pay damages not exceeding 40s. and costs, or either of those things. Furthermore, the Court has power now to discharge. [Mr. ADDISON: Oh, oh!] I hear my hon. and learned Friend express dissent; I think he can hardly have read the section. A Court of Summary Jurisdiction can now, upon conviction, discharge the person convicted, upon condition of him giving security, with or without sureties, to appear for sentence in Court, or to be of good behaviour, or upon payment of damages and costs, or either of them, as the Court may think fit. I hardly know in what way my hon. and learned Friend's view will be promoted by the clauses of this Bill. The intention of enabling any Court—a Court of Assize or otherwise—to avoid sending a first offender to prison is a good one. If that were an object not attainable in the present state of the law, I should be entirely in favour of any Bill having such an object. I believe that by the Act of 1879 the power in question was given to Courts of Summary Jurisdiction, and that they possess it now in an ample way. I admit that the power in the hands of Judges of Assize or of the Superior Courts or Quarter Sessions is not so ample. I believe those Courts can only discharge an offender upon him giving security to appear for sentence when called upon to do so. That, however, in effect, enables the Superior Courts to release a first offender without sending him to prison; therefore, the objects that are sought by this Bill are perfectly capable of attainment by the law as it stands. On the other hand, let the House consider for a moment what the framers of this Bill propose to do. The promoters of the Bill propose to allow the Court to dismiss a first offender without sentencing him, but to make him subject to the provisions of the Prevention of Crime Acts of 1871 and 1879. I do not know whether the House realizes how extremely penal those Acts are. Under these Acts convicts or habitual offenders are subjected to police supervision, which involves penalties of a penal character. A person who is released on licence is required to report his residence periodically, and if he fails to report himself he is liable to a year's imprisonment with hard labour. It will thus be seen that, by this Bill, if a first offender does not comply with the conditions laid down upon his release, he will be subjected to a year's imprisonment, which is probably a much longer period than that by which his offence in the first instance is punishable. But there are other conditions which attach by the Prevention of Crime Acts of 1871 and 1879. If a licensee associates with, bad characters — a rather elastic phrase, which may extend to various classes of society—he is liable, under the Prevention of Crime Acts, to three months with hard labour. That, equally, might be the utmost sentence which might be passed upon persons for certain offences. Then, again, if the person subject to the police supervision has no possible means of obtaining a honest livelihood, which is a fate not uncommon in many classes of society, he is liable to be brought up and sentenced to three months' imprisonment. I really do submit to my hon. and learned Friend that the police supervision to which he proposes to subject first offenders is unnecessary, harsh, and severe. I imagine it is the desire of the framers of this Bill to have some treatment intermediary between sending a first offender to prison and letting him go scot-free, and in that desire I entirely concur; and, if the Bill could be modified to bring about that end, I should heartily welcome it. Then, I think the promoters of the Bill might have introduced some provision with regard to juvenile offenders. I should be extremely glad, for instance, if in the case of juvenile offenders power were conferred upon the Courts of Summary Jurisdiction to summon before them the parents, and inflict upon them a fine. I believe some such modification of the mode of proceeding against first offenders would be extremely valuable; but this drastic way of putting first offenders under Acts of Parliament which were intended to deal with habitual criminals and convicts out on licence—the very worst criminal classes we have in the country—seems to me not quite in accordance with my hon. and learned Friend's intentions— intentions with which I entirely sympathize. Perhaps the hardest cases are those in which imprisonment is inflicted because the offenders cannot pay a fine. There are numerous cases where the punishment usually imposed is a fine, and, in default of payment, imprisonment. There are cases of imprisonment, especially in the cases of first offenders, I am very sorry to see. One cannot regard poverty in every instance as a crime; and, therefore, persons who are most deserving of sympathy are left outside the scope of the Bill. The 2nd clause of the Bill-there are practically only two clauses in the Bill—seems to be totally inadmissible, inasmuch as it violates all the rules which Parliament has observed in legislation affecting crime. I do not like to seem so ungracious as to oppose the second reading of a Bill which contains the germs of a useful idea; but I am bound to say that those germs have been hardly properly developed—indeed, I am afraid the Bill will work a bad, instead of a good, change. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Sclater-Booth) suggested that the Bill might be taken up by the Government, and remodelled. If the sponsors of the measure will be willing to entrust it to the care of the Government draftsman, I will do my best to see it put in such a shape that it will work a beneficial change in the law, and not impose on first offenders hardships and penalties much more severe than they ought to be subjected to. Having stated these objections, I shall offer no further opposition to the second reading.

MR.HOWAED VINCENT (Sheffield, Central)

I desire to say a few words in support of the second reading of the Bill. It is a Bill in which I have taken the deepest interest; and I see many hon. Gentlemen now in the House who will, perhaps, recollect the signal unanimity with which the measure was received in the last Parliament. The Bill passed through all its stages in the last Parliament; indeed, not one word of exception was taken to any one of its provisions. It is true that it was stopped in the House of Lords; and I had some reason to complain of the course the then Administration took as regards it. The Government of the day allowed the Bill to go quietly through all the stages in this House; but they stopped it in "another place," where it was impossible for me to meet any of the objections which were raised to it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary (Mr. Matthews) has said that he has considerable difficulty in ascertaining what are the motives of the framers of the measure in submitting it to the judgment of the House. The desire of the framers of the Bill is to endeavour to do something to prevent first offenders being turned, by imprisonment, into habitual criminals; to endeavour to do something to convert those who have committed a first offence into honest men and useful members of society. I am sure the House was impressed by the statement of my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Addison), that a measure) of this kind has worked for many years with signal success in Massachusetts. It is no new experiment which we are seeking to introduce. What we propose has worked amongst our own race, and under a similar system of jurisprudence to our own, for eight years past, with great success; in fact, the result has been 2,600 reformed lives, and a saving in hard cash of no less than £10,000. I feel sure the House will recognize that that is certainly a tangible result. I wish to repeat the statement of the Mover of the second reading—that what we propose has been adopted in the Colonies of New Zealand and of Queensland. It was unanimously adopted by both Houses of Legislature in those Colonies. The House will, of course, recognize the difficulty I labour under in following the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary, who is so well versed in all the intricacies of the law; but, even after what he has said, hon. Members will, I am sure, feel that the Bill deserves their favourable consideration. My right hon. and learned Friend has said that he does see in the Bill the germs of a good change in the law. I hope, therefore, he will allow the second reading to pass. He has said, if we will entrust the Bill to the Government draftsman, he will do his best to make a good measure of it. I shall very gladly adopt that course. No Party interests are concerned in the Bill; and, therefore, I entreat hon. Members of both sides to agree to the second reading. I do so because I am perfectly certain that the Bill is capable of efficient administration, and that it will have a very great tendency to reduce crime, and to reduce the expenses incurred in the maintenance of criminals in the country.

MR. MOLLOY (King's Co., Birr)

My name appears on the back of the Bill, and I wish to say that the measure has my hearty concurrence. The Bill was brought forward last year; it was passed unanimously by this House, and therefore it is rather astonishing to find the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary (Mr. Matthews), who, of all persons, should take an interest in any measure having such an object as this, disposed to throw cold water upon the Bill. I should have thought the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have been the first person in the House to have welcomed any Bill of this character; but he has made a speech criticizing the Bill in all its details; in fact, his speech was a conglomeration of speeches, only fit for the Committee stage. The object of the Bill is one of which we can all approve; why, then, should the Home Secretary, whose duty it is to support every step in this direction, throw cold water upon the measure? My advice to the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Addison) is, that he should proceed with the Bill to a Division, because we are, as a House, pledged to the Bill, and the observations which were made by the Home Secretary are observations which can be dealt with in Committee.


Mr. Speaker, as my name appears on the back of the Bill, I should like to say a few words before the Debate closes. I have taken considerable interest in this subject for many years; but I quite admit the force of all that has been said by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary (Mr. Matthews) as to the difficulties surrounding the treatment of the persons we have in. view. I know how serious are the provisions of the law relating to police supervision, and I can understand the alarm with which my right hon. and learned Friend views the proposal to extend such a system to first offenders in certain cases. But what I have always had in view has been to extend, if possible, the power which Petty Sessional Courts and Quarter Sessions have at present to let persons out on their own recognizances; a power which, I think, is most useful, but which is so seldom exercised at the present time. I would urge the House, if it affirm the principle, at all events, of extending to first offenders some more lenient means of punishment than the necessity of prison discipline, which is now almost the only means available. At the same time, I would advise my hon. Friend the Member for Central Sheffield (Mr. Howard Vincent), who really has brought in this Bill, to adopt the suggestion of the Home Secretary, and allow the Government draftsman, in company with my hon. Friend himself, to go over the Bill and endeavour to surmount the difficulties which the right hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Matthews) has mentioned. We are all anxious to see first offenders treated in such a way as will enable them to come back to society, without being subjected to the contamination of prison discipline. By the adoption of the suggestion of the Home Secretary, it is very probable a solution of the difficulty may be arrived at.

SIR RICHARD PAGET (Somerset, Wells)

Mr. Speaker, it is the duty of the Home Secretary to minutely examine and criticize the details of all Bills dealing with the Criminal Law of the country; and, therefore, so far from accusing the right hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Matthews) of throwing cold water upon this Bill, the House is indebted to him for pointing out what are the obvious defects in the Bill as it at present stands. Of course, I sympathize with the objects of the measure as explained by the promoters. I had great satisfaction in serving on the Summary Jurisdiction Committee some time ago, and in taking part in the drawing up of the very provisions to which the Home Secretary has alluded; and which place it in the power of every Court of Petty Sessions to deal with first offenders in the lenient way the hon. and learned Gentleman has described. There is one provision in this measure which commends itself to me, and that is that the powers in question can be extended either to the High Court or the Court of Quarter Sessions or other Criminal Courts. I trust the House will not be put to the necessity of dividing upon the second reading; but that my hon. Friend (Mr. Howard Vincent) who is responsible for the introduction of the Bill, will accept the offer made to him by the Home Secretary —namely, that the Bill should be read a second time, upon the clear understanding that it should be remodelled under the advice of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I heartily approve of anything that can be done to amend the Criminal Law, so as to prevent the stain of imprisonment attaching to first offenders. There are dangers in the Bill; indeed as it stands I think the Bill might do more harm than good.

Mr. LAWSON (St. Pancras, W.)

As a very earnest supporter of this Bill I hope the House will allow me to express the hope that there will be no more talk upon it. There is another very important measure to come on, and practically, we are all agreed as to the principle. There is nothing more to fight about, and hon. Members on this side of the House are quite content to leave the Bill in the hands of the Home Secretary (Mr. Matthews) to elaborate it, and make it effective for the humane purpose we have in view. [Cries of "Divide!"]


Notwithstanding the impatience of hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway opposite, I trust I may be allowed to say a word or two on this Bill, because it is a Bill in which I also have taken considerable interest, and to the provisions of which I have given some attention. The hon. Member (Mr. Howard Vincent) who introduced this Bill last year has made some observations with regard to the fact that the Bill was stopped in the House of Lords. Well, Sir, I do not think that was the fault of any of the present Advisers of Her Majesty; if any blame did attach to anyone, it must be visited upon the heads of the right hon. Gentlemen who now sat on the Front Opposition Bench. Probably there were reasons which made it difficult to pass the Bill last year. Certainly this Bill does require some careful consideration, and the House ought to understand its provisions a little more thoroughly, I will not say before they assent to the principle, but before they assent to its passing. I entirely agree that the Bill should be read a second time; but I wish the House to appreciate one or two matters they will have to consider in reference to the further progress of the measure. It is not quite right to suggest that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary (Mr. Matthews) threw any cold water upon the intentions, or spoke disparagingly of the intentions, of those who have introduced the Bill. I heard the whole of my right hon. and learned Friend's speech, and I think the House will agree with me he simply pointed out the serious defects, not only of detail, but also of principle which require consideration. There is no doubt it is necessary that the Bill should be remodelled, in order that the real intentions of the framers of the Bill should have some practical effect given to them. I would point to a matter which will commend itself to lawyers in this House, and of course it is necessary that a Bill of this kind should be criticized by some of those who have experience of the practice of the law; it is proposed that the Bill should be confined at present to offences for which a person might be sentenced to imprisonment with or without hard labour. Probably those who framed the Bill, not having for the moment all the offences before their minds, forgot that cases of larceny and embezzlement, which can be punished with penal servitude, would be excepted from the operation of the Bill. If it is desired that this Bill shall protect juvenile offenders from the contamination of prisoners, there is probably no offence in respect of which it is more likely to be applied than that of small larceny. There is another very important matter which has already been referred to by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary (Mr. Matthews) and others who have addressed the House, and that is that the Bill proposes that the persons who are released upon probation may be subject to the provisions of the Prevention of Crime Acts of 1871 and 1879. I have no intention of detailing the stringent nature of those provisions; it was pointed out with accuracy by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, although at the time one of the provisions seemed to be not quite understood by some of my Friends behind me. I venture to suggest that it will have to be considered whether the Bill should apply to first offenders without any limitation as to age. We think that the Bill requires revision, having regard to the fact that if it passed into law, first offenders would be subject to the provisions of the Acts of 1871 and 1879. The words of the Bill are that first offenders should be "conditionally released." I think the House should make up its mind as to what should be required of offenders released under this Bill, because it would not be proper to apply to them the principles which guide Criminal Courts in the cases of older offenders; and I venture to think that those who support the Bill should consider whether a clause should not be inserted to ensure that there should be some check on the conduct of those who are released without punishment. I also think it would be of very great advantage if the House had a little more knowledge of the working in other countries of laws which have provisions similar to those in the present Bill. An hon. Member has told us that a similar law has been passed in Massachusetts, and we know that in some of our Colonies, also, similar laws are in existence; but we have not been informed as to their operation, and I think it is important that those in this House who desire to see this amendment of the law should be told under what conditions those Acts have operated and have been found successful. I have no desire, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has no desire, to depreciate the intentions of those who have introduced this Bill. On the contrary, our wish is to give every assistance in properly remodelling it; and it is with the hope of doing this, consistently with the principle of the measure, that I trust the House will agree to the Motion for the second reading.

MR. CHILDERS (Edinburgh, S.)

Sir, it is my duty to state that when this Bill—which was brought in at the beginning of last Session, but was only printed some months later, and just before it stood for a second reading— came before me at the Home Office, I found it to contain principles of such grave importance, that I considered it my duty to refer it for the opinion and report of certain Judges, Chairmen of Sessions, Police Magistrates, and others, whose views, derived from experience, would be of value. These reports, however, had not been received when the Dissolution, after the defeat of the late Government, was determined upon; and I concluded that no further progress would be made with the Bill, when I left town to canvass my constituents. It, however, passed this House in my absence and that of my colleague at the Home Office, but was properly stopped in the House of Lords. I have only to add, on the question whether the Bill is a wise one and one which ought to be adopted by the House, that I consider that it contains the germs of valuable legislation; but it contains much to which there is grave objection, and I trust that if the Bill be read a second time, it will be dealt with in the manner proposed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department.


I desire to make a suggestion with regard to this Bill. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has pointed out that in order to make the Bill of value it is necessary that some reference should take place to those experienced in legal drafting; and, secondly, it is said that we should be guided by the working of similar provisions in other countries. Both these objects would be accomplished, and the Bill would be more likely to pass from this House in such a condition that no difficulty should arise afterwards by its being referred to a Select Committee, and I suggest that it should be so referred, if the Motion for the second reading is agreed to.


Sir, as the hon. Member has protracted his frequent discussion of this Bill until half-past 12 o'clock, I trust he will not be dissatisfied if we, on these Benches, now have our innings. Although I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House should be very jealous of the treatment of first offenders—that the most severe punishment should not be meted out to them—yet I do not see the advantage of passing a Bill of which neither the 1st nor the 2nd Clause is in harmony with the views of the House. Further, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary has stated that, even if the Bill were to get the sanction of the House, these clauses would be inoperative and nugatory. I am sure that this House joins with the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Addison) in his spirit of leniency to first offenders; but I think, with all sincerity and seriousness, that it is hardly possible to make a rule that first offenders should get off scot-free; and, further, I am of opinion that it might happen that magistrates in Ireland would avail themselves of the Bill, in order to liberate some of their friends who ought, for first offences committed by them, to be sent to prison. If the Bill does not ensure the object in view, I think the best course would be to accept the proposal of the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he should confer with his Colleagues upon the provisions of the measure. Without any desire to spin out the present discussion, I venture to say that the Bill has not yet received the consideration which the importance of the subject demands; and, therefore, I feel it my duty to oppose the Motion for the second reading, and to move that it be read this day six months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Edward Harrington.)

Question, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question," put, and negatived.

Main Question again proposed.

MR. E. R. RUSSELL (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

Sir, I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned.


Does any hon. Member second that Motion?

[No reply.]

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday 7th March.