HC Deb 17 March 1890 vol 342 cc1081-91

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

*(10.50.) MR. H. H. FOWLER

I would suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should allow the Bill to be read a second time to-night that we may put down our Amendments. Possibly, the Bill might go to a Grand Committee.

* THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH,) Strand, Westminster

If it is the desire of the House, I have no objection at all. My hon. Friend who has charge of the Bill was not present, and I thought it desirable to postpone it. It is a Bill which obviously requires amendment in Committee.


A fair time will be allowed for putting down Amendments?



*(10.52.) MR. J. R. KELLY (Camberwell, N.)

Sir, this is one of the strangest Bills that was ever brought before the House. The object of it is the protection of infant life, and we all know the worst cases are those in which a lump sum is paid by the mother to get rid of the child. Now, by the 1st clause, you find that no person shall take any infant under the age of five years for the purpose of maintaining or nursing it for a longer period than 24 hours, except in a house which has been registered. I want to know what poor people would do if that became the law. Why, Sir, if this Bill passed in anything like its present shape, the working-man who had a child stricken with fever could not hope to get some kind neighbour to take temporary charge of his other young children, so that they might be removed from the danger of infection; if his wife were in the greatest danger and his doctor told him that her condition was such that it was necessary that her young child should be sent away for the mother's sake for a few days, he would look in vain for some friend ready to take care of the child for him. The poor cannot afford to keep the children of their poor neighbours, and, if anything at all were paid in such cases, the payments, however small, would at once convert such neighbours into "baby-farmers." People must know little indeed of the feelings of our working classes, if they suppose for one moment that they would ever consent to having to choose between registering their humble homes as baby-farms, or being dragged before a magistrate, simply because they might be anxious to help some poor neighbour with a fever-stricken home. And what about our relatives in our Dependencies? We know what a tremendous wrench it is to parents to deprive themselves of the pleasure of being with their children, and that there is probably scarcely a parent in India who has not to leave some child with a friend or relative in this country. But no clergyman in the country would be able to take the child of an Anglo-Indian except his house was registered as a baby farm. Or take the case of a married servant whose husband dies. Is her former mistress to be able, as now, to come to her rescue and help her and keep her while her child is placed with a neighbour? Or is this to be made impossible because the neighbour is to be summoned before the magistrate if he has not his house registered as a baby farm. Are we to make it so impossible for parents to get their friendly neighbours to take charge of their children that they will be unable to earn their living as they now earn it? I venture to think that this clause is wrong from beginning to end. You want to prevent baby farming, but you do not want to prevent a poor girl who has slipped and had a child, from being able to put the child out with somebody who can take care of it. A married friend could not take care of the child for her without having her husband registered as a baby farmer. The one thing this House should wish to do is to make it impossible to carry on what is known as baby-farming; to do this we should seek to prevent lump sums being paid to people who will starve to death the children entrusted to them. The position of such wretches would not be altered in any way by this Bill. There never was a title which gave a worse idea of the contents of a Bill than that of the Infant Life Protection Bill. It is a Bill for the persecution of honest poor parents, and the greatest injustice will be done if the 1st clause passes. May I say that even the Foundling Hospital will, under this Bill, have to be registered as a baby farm? The Hospital puts a number of children out to nurse with respectable poor people, and every single one of these people will have to be registered as a baby farmer. The 2nd clause provides that where an infant is registered, the person by whom it is registered shall truly state the name and sex and age and place and time of birth in his or her own name and the place or places in which he or she has resided during the six months immediately preceding. Then a girl who has once tripped is to have no chance or hope of concealing her shame and leading a good life because the finger of shame can be pointed at her by anyone who knows anything about the register! That is the last thing which Christian people would wish to see. I would appeal to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Matthews) to postpone the Second Reading. I am sure there is scarcely anyone in the country who knows what the real operation of the Bill will be. I have seen but one notice of it, which appeared in the Times newspaper, and there was no attempt made to state there except in the words of the Bill what its object was. I invite the House to consider not what the object of the Bill is, but what its effects will inevitably be. I beg formally to move that the debate be adjourned.


Does anyone second the Motion?


I beg to second it.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Kelly.)

Question put, and negatived.

Original Question again proposed.

*(11.10.) MR. M'LAREN (Cheshire, Crewe)

This Bill will act so injuriously on those persons, who will undoubtedly be brought under its operation, that I think the Home Secretary or one of the other Members of the Government ought to make a distinct promise that it will be modified. Of course, I am anxious that the evils of baby farming should be checked; but I think that may be done very well without the stringent provisions of this measure. In regard to the 1st clause, it is perfectly clear that, as the Bill stands, if a working man who is a widower removes in search of work and leaves his child with his mother or married sister or some other relative, or even a friend, his relative must have his or her house registered as a baby farm. This is a provision which ought not to be enforced. There ought to be some exception in the Bill in favour of relatives and real friends. I can hardly imagine that the intention of the Home Office was to produce such a clause as this. I should imagine that the section has been drafted by some no doubt well-meaning person who is ignorant of the way in which it would operate, and who has had very little experience of the manner in which the poor live. The point is one on which I hope we shall have an explicit assurance from the Government. Then, under the 2nd clause if any unfortunate woman, who has had an illegitimate child, leaves her child with some other person to be maintained while she goes out to service, she must leave her name and address, and describe where she has been for the previous six months. If it is to be purely private information, there will probably be no great harm in it; but the poor woman, whose only hope is to conceal the misfortune that has fallen upon her, has to register the information, and I presume it will become the property of some public official. I should not object so much if the names of both the father and mother were to be registered; but I object to the name of merely the poor woman being given. If the Bill ever reaches Committee I shall try to amend it on this point. We all know that when a Bill has been road a second time and these general sweeping provisions have been endorsed by the House, it is impossible to remedy any defects of principle in Committee. When we roach the Committee stage we find the Members interested in such points as these a mere handful; and when Divisions are taken, Members who know nothing of the merits of the question, come in by the hundred and vote us down. I trust that the Government, as they are anxious to pass the Bill, will do what they can to render it a really good workable measure, and that they will give me an assurance in the direction I have indicated. There must be Members on both sides of the House who have not studied the Bill—probably few Members present read a word of it before to-night; therefore, it is desirable that the Government should not unduly force it upon us. I would urge the Government to give us an assurance that the Bill will not be pressed forward in its present form. I also specially urge that it should be referred to a Select Committee, as the only chance of its being put into a proper shape.

*(11.21.) SIR R. FOWLER (London)

The points raised by the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down and my hon. Friend on this side of the House, are really matters for discussion in Committee. The right hon. Gentleman the leader of the House has admitted that the measure requires amendment in Committee; therefore I trust the House will take the Second Reading to-night, on the understanding that the Bill is to be thoroughly discussed either in the Grand Committee or by a Select Committee. The Bill is a good one, and I do not think time should be lost in passing it.


The Second Reading of this Bill came on rather unexpectedly, owing to the progress made with business. The Bill is aimed solely at cruelty to and the maltreatment of infants, and the necessity for it has been shown by a certain class of cases which have recently been before coroners' courts. The Act of 1872 has been evaded by baby-farmers not having more than one child at a time. The practice is to hand the children on to others, without giving names or any information as to parentage, on the payment of a lump sum and without asking any questions, and the policy of the Bill is to take away interest in the cruel treatment and death of a child. No doubt there is room for the amendment of the details of the Bill. The 13th section of the Act of 1872 excepts children left by parents with relatives and guardians and children received by institutions for the care of infants. These exceptions may be extended so as to meet the case of the Foundling Hospital and other institutions which not merely receive children but also place them out with foster-parents or nurses. The Government are by no means averse to the consideration of Amendments. If it is the wish of the House to send the Bill to a Standing Committee the Government will not offer any opposition to such a proposal. The Bill has been prepared by the Home Secretary after full consultation with some of the great Municipalities, which are the Local Authorities charged with the administration of the Act of 1872. These, except so far as they are neutral, have expressed their approval of it.

(11.26.) COLONEL NOLAN (Galway, N.)

I think that in this Bill the meshes of the net are much too narrow. The attempt is a clumsy one to meet a crying evil. The measure may operate fairly enough in London or in large towns in England, and even in Dublin and Belfast; but it would not in the country districts of Ireland, where many young children are left with parents and relatives by people who go to America. In cases where children are left behind in that way the people receiving them would be liable to prosecution under this Bill. And looking at the Bill from a financial point of view it is extremely pernicious, seeing that the Local Authorities in Ireland are not the Municipalities but the Poor Law Boards. The Poor Law Boards will have to pay relieving officers or somebody else to look after the working of the Act, and the people already have to pay so much in the shape of rates that they are unwilling to extend the functions of the officers of the Boards. The rates will be increased in this way, and they will also be increased by the fact that children will be put into the Union if they cannot be left with friends when the parents go to America, and when put into the Union they will be kept there until they are 11 or 14 years of age. We might have to maintain these children in the workhouses 8 or 10 years. This would be an artificial increase in the number of children in the Unions, which number ought to be kept down to the lowest possible point. I would ask hon. Members to strike Ireland out of the Bill when it gets into Committee.




The hon. Member has exhausted his right by seconding the Motion for adjournment. He has thus spoken on the Main Question.

(11.29.) MR. GRAY (Essex, Maldon)

Hon. Members must naturally sympathise with the objects of the measure; but whilst approving of the principle of the Bill many of us are bound to criticise its details. In the rural districts children are constantly left with respectable neighbours while their parents go haymaking and harvesting. Then in the summer numbers of children are sent from London and the large towns to live for a few days or weeks for the benefit of their health with cottagers living in the villages. I should be sorry to see unnecessary restrictions placed upon these things, and I hope nothing will be done to prevent such charities. If details such as these are attended to in the Bill I should see no objection to its passing.

(11.30.) DR. CLARK (Caithness)

Now that we have had an explanation from the Under Secretary as to the reasons of the Government for introducing this Bill, I must at once say that I am not satisfied that his arguments are sufficient to justify the introduction of the measure. The Act of 1872, which provides for the registration of any person who took charge of more than one child, is a very wide one. But the present Bill proposes to carry the principle further, by requiring the registration of any person who takes charge of one child for any period beyond 24 hours. I am afraid that the only effect of such a provision in Scotland, at any rate, will be to manufacture criminals. I was at one time resident doctor at the Royal Maternity Hospital at Edinburgh, and I knew of many cases where people, by payment of £50 or £100, were relieved for ever of the charge of their illegitimate offspring. But, in future, if a person takes one of these children, she will require to be registered under the Act. Again, I say that if the Bill is passed in its present form, and the Local Authorities appoint officers to carry out its provisions, the result will be to manufacture criminals. I do not think that the Government have advanced any reasons for adopting this Bill, which will prevent poor people taking charge of illegitimate children—as they often do out of kindness—because they will look upon it as an indignity to have to register themselves as baby-farmers. I shall therefore vote against the measure.

(11.33.) MR. JACOB BRIGHT (Manchester, S.W.)

Are we to understand that the Bill will go before a Select Committee? In regard to Clause 5, which anthorises the appointment of officers to visit houses which they have reason to believe are used as baby farms, I think it is most objectionable, indeed a more objectionable proposal was never brought before this House. In order to remove one evil the Bill proposes to establish a still greater evil. What will be the result of insisting on the registration in all cases? In towns the system may not work so disadvantageously; but in rural districts a man whose wife suddenly dies may have to send his children to a registered house many miles distant, instead of being able to place them under the care of a neighbour. If such a Bill were proposed in an Assembly in which poor people were represented it would never pass.

*(11.34.) SIR R. TEMPLE (Worcester, Evesham)

I am strongly in favour of the principle of the Bill, subject to modification in detail; but I agree that it is one that could best be dealt with by a Select Committee of experts, or of those specially interested, as it may not perhaps be of sufficient magnitude or complexity to send to the Standing Committee on Law and Justice. As a member of that Standing Committee I do not think it is as well qualified to deal with this Bill as a Select Committee would be.

(11.37.) MR. JOHN O'CONNOR (Tipperary, S.)

I am constrained to interpose in this debate because of the silence of the Government on the question raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Galway, as to whether they will consent to exclude Ireland from the Bill if the majority of the Irish Members should object to the extension of its operations to that country. The measure may possibly be desirable in England, Scotland, and Wales; but the social conditions of Ireland are entirely different, and therefore it should not be made applicable to that country. There is in Ireland an old historic custom, in accordance with which the children of one class of people are often fostered by people belonging to another class. This Bill will strike at the very root of this custom, which results in establishing strong feelings of affection between persons belonging to different classes. We therefore think that if it is strongly opposed by Irish Members Ireland should be exempted from the operation of the Bill.

*(11.39.) MR. J. S. GATHORNE HARDY (Kent, Medway)

If we are to understand that the Bill will be used only as the text for a Bill dealing with this subject I shall not oppose the Second Reading. I sympathise greatly with the object of the Bill; but I should not like to see it become law in its present form. The first clause will have just the opposite effect to that intended, as it would compel children to be sent to baby-farmers, instead of to relations or friends, and no amount of inspection would secure the proper treatment in all cases of these unfortunate children. I hope the Government will consent to send the Bill to a Select Committee.

(11.40.) MR. ROWNTREE (Scarborough)

I agree entirely that the intentions of those who introduced this Bill are admirable; but I am sure that if it were carried in its present form those intentions would be defeated; and I do not think that public opinion will support the clause which will make it necessary for all persons who take charge of children to register themselves, even though they may be related to the person handing the charge over to them. I think many Local Authorities would not like to carry out the provisions of the 5th clause. It is very desirable that the Bill should go before a Select Committee.

*(11.42.) MR. P. S. POWELL (Wigan)

I have carefully examined the provisions of this Bill, and am bound to say I do not think it should be allowed to pass in its present form. I agree that it should be referred either to a Grand Committee or to a Select Committee; the latter would be the more competent, I think, to deal with the matter, because it is one requiring special knowledge, and one on which evidence should be taken. On the one hand, it is desirable to prevent cruelty to children; but, on the other hand, you must not unduly interfere with the rights of parents.


Assuming that the Second Reading is to-day agreed to, Her Majesty's Government are quite prepared to refer the Bill to a Committee, and if the House prefers a Select Committee no objection will be raised. As to the exclusion of Ireland from the scope of the Bill, it ought to be borne in mind that this measure proposes to amend the Act of 1872, which already applies to Ireland; and if the original Act applies to Ireland surely the amending Act, which proposes to remove certain blemishes in the original Act, ought to apply to that country as well as to the rest of the United Kingdom. It may be that you cannot strike at the blots in the existing Bill without hitting some innocent persons; but the question is, whether the remedy provided by the Bill will not greatly outweigh the objections which may be raised in the interests of one section of the community affected by it.

*(11.46.) MR. DONAL SULLIVAN (Westmeath, S.)

As a protest against the eminently unsatisfactory answer of the right hon. Gentleman, I beg to move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Donal Sullivan.)

The House divided:—Ayes 17; Noes 151,—(Div. List, No. 29.)

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.