HC Deb 14 August 1889 vol 339 cc1284-7

Consideration of the Lords' Amendment.

Question proposed, "That the House do proceed with the consideration of the Lords' Amendments."

* MR. H. H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

I hope the House will allow me to state the course which, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for the Brightside Division of Sheffield, I propose to take with reference to these Amendments. The Amendments are bulky, apparently, in size, but they are easily divisible into three classes—verbal Amendments, Amendments of procedure, and Amendments in substance. So far as the verbal Amendments and Amendments in procedure are concerned, they have been inserted in the Bill mainly at the instance and under the supervision of Lord Herschell and with the concurrence of the Lord Chancellor, and I think the House may be content to accept these improvements of verbal phraseology and procedure without discussion. There might, of course, be some criticism possible on the procedure Amendments; but I would exceedingly deprecate any friend of the Bill raising a question of that kind. That brings me to the three Amendments in substance which the House of Lords have made in this Bill. The first is in reference to the hours in which children are to be allowed to sell newspapers and other articles in the streets. As the Bill left this House, the hours after which children were not to be employed in the streets were fixed at 10 o'clock at night in summer and 8 o'clock in winter. The House of Lords has thought fit to fix 10 o'clock as the hour all the year round. Some objection might, no doubt, be made to this alteration; but it must be borne in mind that power is reserved to the Local Authority to further extend or restrict the hours, and those of us who are anxious that this clause should work with as little friction as possible will be satisfied to leave the matter in the hands of the Local Authority. The next Amendment of substance is with regard to the position of a wife in regard to giving evidence against her husband. As the Bill left this House it provided that the wife should be a competent and compellable witness. The House of Lords has seen fit to alter that; and as the amended clause was drawn by Lord Herschell, I think the words are entitled to great weight. What is now proposed is that the wife shall be required to attend the Court and be competent as a witness; but, upon her refusal to give evidence, shall not be compellable. There is a great deal to be said on both sides, and I should be sorry to express any dogmatic opinion. When men of the eminence of Lord Herschell and the Lord Chancellor think this the most desirable manner of dealing with this point, I do not think it would be well to ask the House of Commons to disagree with the Amendment. That brings me to the third, and really the only, substantial alteration that has been made in this Bill, and that is with reference to the licensing of children under 10 years of age for theatrical performances. The House will recollect that we carried by large majorities, both in Committee and on the Report, a provision that no child under 10 should, under any circumstances, be allowed to sing or play for profit, either in a theatre or in a circus. We applied the Factory Act to theatrical performances. I am not going to justify what the House did on that occasion; but the alteration which the House of Lords has made is this—although it leaves the clause precisely as it was with reference to children under seven years, of age, as to children between 7 and 10, power is given to a Petty Sessional Court to grant licenses for such employment. No Magistrate would be able to grant a license at his residence; it must be done in a public Petty Sessional Court, and the license will be subject to such conditions and restrictions as the Court may think fit to impose. Now, I regret that Amendment; but we have to deal with this matter as practical men. I would not only ask the House to attach some weight to the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Bright-side Division of Sheffield, but I would also urge them to accept that of a gentleman who is largely responsible for the outside opinion which has produced this Bill—I mean the Rev. Mr. Waugh. I think, too, I have some claim to be heard on this question; for when it was originally proposed to exempt theatrical performances from the operation of the Bill, I led the revolt. Of course, my sympathy goes in the direction of extending this clause as far as possible; but, looking to the state of public business and the fact that this Amendment had the support of Her Majesty's Government in the other House and that they are not likely to assent to its abandonment, I would urge that these Amendments be assented to. I do not wish to reflect in any way on the action of the Government. I think, as a matter of common justice, that if this passes into law, all of us who are deeply interested in it will be very much indebted not only to the First Lord of the Treasury, but also to the Attorney General, without whose assistance the Bill could not have been passed this Session. Therefore I am not reflecting on the action of the Government when I say I am persuaded that the majority of this House would decline to upset this compromise. If this Amendment is not agreed to by the House of Commons, the result will be a wrangle between the two Houses and the inevitable loss of the measure. Under these circumstances, having regard to the fact that this is a vexed question upon which many people just as philanthropic as ourselves take different views, and that a fair compromise has been obtained, I hope that the House will, as a matter of wise and judicious policy, agree with the Amendment, and thus permit the Bill, which will be a great boon to the children of this country, to become law without any further delay.

Question put, and agreed to.

Lords' Amendments, considered.

On Amendment with regard to the employment of children in theatres,

* MR. WINTERBOTHAM (Gloucester, Cirencester)

I ask the indulgence of the House while I make a few remarks on this question. I have a very strong feeling about the mistake which, in my humble judgment, the House of Lords have made in introducing this particular Amendment; and I deeply regret the course that the House of Lords has adopted. Still I recognise the enormous advantages of the Bill, even as amended, and I will not take the responsibility of any risk of delaying its passing, and am therefore prepared to agree with the Lords' Amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe also desires me to state that he will not move the Amendment standing in his name. And now I wish the House to allow me to say a few words on the moral question. I used words in this House on a recent occasion which I wish to withdraw. They are incapable of absolute proof. There is a great difference of opinion on the matter, and I find the statement is considered exaggerated by many persons who are as likely to be right as those on whose information I based it. As my words caused a great deal of pain to virtuous girls who follow this employment, I wish to withdraw the words I used to the effect "that the great majority, when they ended their dancing days, entered upon lives on the streets." I wish to withdraw publicly what I said publicly; but, at the same time, I do not desire to withdraw my grave protest against this door being specially opened to little girls to enter a profession full of danger to their purity and morality. With regard to this Amendment, I may add that, though it is agreed to at present, it will not prevent the fight from being renewed and carried on until the labour of all children under 10 years is, without exception, prohibited.

Lords' Amendments agreed to.