HC Deb 24 March 1903 vol 120 cc119-32


Order for Second Reading read.


asked for some further explanation as to the extension of the surveillance of the police over children from fourteen to sixteen years of age. The question of the employment of children, more especially school children, was a very important one, and he hoped the Bill would be referred to one of the Standing Committees, where Amendments might be proposed. It would be improper to have a Bill of great importance passed without fair and legitimate discussion.


said he had fully explained the Bill on its introduction; and, although there were some warnings from the hon. Member for Battersea of difficulties likely to arise, there was a general disposition in the House to welcome the proposals. For a considerable time the subject had excited attention both at the Home Office and the Education Department. Much light was thrown on the subject by the inquiry of a Committee in 1897 and 1898, and the Bill was based entirely on the Report of the Departmental Committee of 1901. While children were forbidden to work in factories during school hours they did engage in outside work daily both before and after attending school. This work was not regulated, was prejudicial to school progress, and was often carried on under conditions injurious to health and morals. The making of the bye-laws for the regulation of such work would be optional on the part of Borough and County Councils, and subject to the sanction of the Home Office. He knew that some of his hon. friends thought the Government were going rather hastily in the direction of interfering with the work of children and the help which they gave to their parents. But the Bill carefully provided that there should be full opportunity of enquiring into any complaints that might be made as to the loss to a trade of child-labour, and of considering the merits of the proposal. The Bill was essentially one for a Grand Committee. He would be quite prepared now or upstairs to consider any suggestions made by hon. Members. He hoped the House would now give it a Second Reading, so that it might be passed into law this session.

MR. ASQUITH (Fifeshire, E.)

said his hon. friend the Member for Dundee was quite justified in saying that this measure, welcome as it was, ought not to be read a second time without some discussion. For his part he had for many years taken a very great interest in this subject, and he had the very greatest satisfaction in the opportunity this Bill presented of removing what he believed to be one of the most serious evils at present oppressing the children of our working population. The House was aware that to child-labour in mines, factories, and workshops protection was given, but the fact remained that a great body of children were without any legal protection whatever. He did not think he was exaggerating when he said the number was 150,000. There was abundant evidence that many of these children were being worked excessive hours, and in occupations for which they were entirely unfitted. It was high time to extend the protection which had already been given to children in factories and mines to this important and hitherto altogether neglected class. He did not think there was any doubt as to the expediency of dealing with the matter in this way. He had only one or two observations to make with reference to the Bill itself.

In the first place the Bill applied only to children under fourteen years of age, and therefore it was much more limited in scope than the Mines Act or the Factories Act. As to the application of the Bill the House would observe what was probably a good provision, namely, that it was left to local option. He believed it would be extremely difficult to lay down an inflexible rule for the whole country. Local conditions varied very much, and although he quite agreed there was a certain risk in leaving these things to local authorities, on account of their slackness in the initiation of the law, still, on the whole balance of convenience, policy was in favour of the making of the bye-laws by a local body rather than by a general law. He understood that the objection always shown on this subject by the parents of the class to which these children belonged was the unnecessary and perhaps invidious discrimination between different classes of labour. He thought ample protection was given to all those interests by the fact that the bye-laws starting on the initiative of the local authority had to be submitted to the Secretary of State, and that the Secretary of State was empowered and directed by the Bill to take into consideration all objections from whatever interested quarter they might proceed. There would be very little risk of any particular class being unfairly treated. That being the general scope of the Bill he called attention to a particular provision which prohibited the employment of children between nine in the evening and six in the morning. There was power given to shift those hours, and that that should be the general rule of the law would be conceded on all hands as absolutely desirable and necessary.

One of the great abuses under irregular forms of child labour was that children were turned out at three or four o'clock to carry milk, to go errands, and do odd jobs of one kind and another, so that when they went to school they were thoroughly unfit to derive any advantage from the training which the State compelled them to undergo. He was glad the right hon. Gentleman proposed to send the Bill to one or other of the Grand Committees, where its details could be properly threshed out. In the meantime the House ought to acknowledge the service the right hon. Gentleman had rendered in bringing forward the Bill at a period when there was a prospect of its being passed into law this session.

MR. GALLOWAY (Manchester, S. W.)

said he desired to point out to his right hon. friend one feature of the Bill which he thought was going to arouse considerable opposition. The right hon. Gentleman said he thought it well that these matters should be left to local authorities. Therein he entirely differed from him. He did not think any Government Office in London could deal with matters of this kind, but he wished to point out that in an urban area, which for all practical purposes was one and the same town, there might be two or more local authorities. One set of rules might obtain in one locality, while no such conditions obtained in another. In that way not only great difficulties in administration might be raised, but a great sense of injustice might be in the minds of those parents who considered that their interests were prejudicially affected. If regulations were to be made at all it was essential to make the Act compulsory all over the country and to see that it was put into force. Surely it could not be argued that the children in one part of the country were not as important as those in another! He hoped his right hon. friend would consider this point between now and the time when the Bill would go upstairs. It appeared to him to be a matter of importance that the Bill should be dealt with in the manner he had suggested. The question of age would raise a serious difficulty; but that was a matter of detail and not of principle. He desired to congratulate his right hon. friend on having brought forward a Bill which he was sure would do much that was necessary for the children of this country.

SIR WALTER FOSTER (Derbyshire, Ilkeston)

said the measure was somewhat confusing when first read. It started in a distinctly permissive way; but when one got to the fourth clause, he found the permissive spirit considerably tempered by specific directions. He regarded the Bill as a very ingenious attempt to deal with the question of the employment of children. If the administration of the measure depended solely on the local authorities, very diverse methods might be adopted in different localities. But by the central control of the Home Office that was provided, they would have uniformity of direction; the conditions would not vary very much; and they would be able to bring about such control of children's labour as would remove the evils they all deplored. He hoped that such evils, which were a disgrace to our civilisation, and a great detriment to our young generation, would no longer exist in this country. That 150,000 children should be left without control as to their hours of labour was not very creditable; and he congratulated the right hon. Gentleman on having introduced a measure dealing with such a great evil. In the third clause they had a very valuable enactment with reference to the hours during which children should be employed; but the courage of the draftsman seemed to ooze out of his finger tips after writing the first two lines, because he left to the local authorities power to modify what was a very important and almost essential condition in a Bill of this kind. He was glad also that the second clause provided that children under eleven years of age should not be employed in street trading. There was to be no option there. Then again with reference to hard labour, which was likely to injure a child, there was to be no attempt to whittle away the provisions of the measure. He thought that sub-sections 4 and 5 of this clause were most valuable for protecting the health of our growing population, and preventing young children being employed under conditions likely to seriously affect their youthfulness and vigour in after life. He hoped the criticisms he had made would strengthen the right hon. Gentleman and his friends in Committee in an endeavour to make the Bill, if possible, a little stronger than it was in the direction of control from the Central authority, in order that they might, as far as possible, have a uniform system for the protection of the youthful members of the community, and that they should not allow children in any one locality to be employed at work likely to injure them. They should try to make the process, as far as possible, uniform and he hoped that, in its passage through Committee, the Bill would be strengthened as regarded the power of the Central authority, especially in reference to the first section of clause 3.

MR. PARKER SMITH (Lanarkshire, Partick)

said he gladly joined with other hon. Members in congratulating his right hon. friend on this Bill, and in expressing support of its principles. Last year the Government Bill did not apply to Scotland; but a Bill was brought in to cover the case of Scotland at the instance of the great School Board of Glasgow; and it obtained very strong support from School Boards and other interested bodies in Scotland. He especially welcomed the Bill as being another step in advance in what seemed to him to be a most vital matter in regard to education, and that was the taking of the health and physical development of the children into due consideration. For a long time they had acknowledged the duty of developing the intellect of children; but they did not take sufficient responsibility for developing their physical health and physical training. There were a great many points in the Bill that would have to be considered in Committee. One difficulty would arise in connection with Clause 2, which dealt with boys and girls up to the age of sixteen. He himself felt considerable difficulty in going beyond the school age. One proposal that he strongly disliked was the penalty that would have to be put on lads and girls if they broke the regulations. They would be liable to be fined 20s. for the first offence, and £5 for the second offence; and in default, he supposed, they would be sent to prison. He thought that would be a very lamentable consequence of their endeavour to secure better regulations as to street trading. That was a matter of serious difficulty, and dealt with a point on which he did not feel the necessity for action as he did in the case of younger children. Speaking from the Scottish point of view, the proper authority to see after the bye-laws and regulations in Scotland would not be the County Council but the School Board. They had School Boards all over the country which were in touch with the children, and who could act through their own officers, and not through the police. Therefore, he thought the powers under this Bill should, in Scotland, be given to the School Boards and not to the County authorities. Once more he desired to express his satisfaction that the Bill was being read a second time at such an early stage of the session.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Louth, N.)

said he was very glad the Bill had been introduced; but he wished to say a word with regard to the question of penalties. Take a child who had neither father nor mother, or who had not arrived at the age of sixteen. It might be very hard that that child should have to work in the streets; but would it not be worse if he were sent to prison. Some discretion should be left to the magistrates as to whether a child should be sent to gaol or not. He understood that a fine of 20s., if unpaid, would carry imprisonment; and he thought it was very hard that a child should be sent to an industrial school, as the Bill provided, for an offence of that kind. One other matter he would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman. He observed that the County Councils had power to put the Act into operation; but that if it were found that it was harshly used, or undesirable, there was no power to change the by-laws. He thought the House should face this question as a whole, and having fixed upon an age at which children ought not to be at work, the House and not the local authority should enforce the law, because it might be that there might be men on the local authority who had an interest, or who were controlled by others who had an interest, in the law not being enforced, and in that case it would become a dead letter. He urged upon the right hon. Gentleman who had introduced the Bill these matters, which he thought were worthy of consideration.


said everybody agreed with the general principles of this Bill, but there were some points which, in his opinion, would require very careful consideration. It seemed to him that there was some hardship and a chance that the children would be worse off after the passage of this Bill than before. He was afraid, unless they limited the words "employ" and "employment," it would be almost criminal for a child to assist its parents in the household. Of course, if a child was employed for wages outside its own homo that was a different matter. The House must be very careful as to these bye-laws, and see that they did not make it altogether impossible for these persons to live. If this Bill went to a Committee there were many points the details of which would have to be very carefully considered, and he ventured to think, though they were trying to do away with the great evil they all recognised as to street trading, they must not at the same time make it impossible for a child to assist its parents. They must not make it a criminal offence to do its best for those who have the first claim upon it.

MR. TENNANT (Berwickshire)

said most hon. Members who had addressed the House on this subject had urged that in this matter there must be uniformity of administration, and it did not seem to him that the Bill in its present shape would bring about that uniformity. This was due to the fact that it was not obligatory on the County and Borough Councils to make bye-laws. It should be made obligatory, and then it would be possible for the Home Office to co-ordinate those bye-laws and do away with what had been well described as "the industrial Alsatias" which now existed. He called attention to the fact that 150,000 children of school age were now employed, and of that number a large proportion was sweated in work places which did not come under the provisions of workshop inspection. He was particularly anxious that those children should receive the benefits of this Bill, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would devise some means whereby they should come under inspection. He should like to know how this Bill, when passed, was going to be administered. The Factory Inspector had no right of entry, and there were not enough Inspectors under the local authority. It appeared to him essential that some inspector should be engaged to look after these children.

SIR JOHN GORST (Cambridge University)

hoped the Home Secretary would not abandon the principle of local option in this Bill, which was the most valuable part of it, because, unless the regulations were made with some regard to the social conditions of the district, they ran a very poor chance of being observed. This Act could only be administered if the local authority which now had charge of the schools took care that it was administered in such a manner as to enable the children to come to school in such a condition as to profit by the instruction given to them. It was not likely that two contiguous districts would have an absolutely different set of regulations, and if they had the right hon. Gentleman could easily refer them back to those districts and refuse to assent to them until they had been assimilated. He hoped this Bill would go through; it was a small step in the right direction, and he should, after it had passed, certainly ask the Government for more. He should press the Government of the day, whoever it might be, to clothe the local authorities with such powers as to ensure that the children were not only intellectually but physically trained, that they might grow into strong and healthy men and women.

DR. MACNAMARA (Camberwell, N.)

expressed his pleasure at the Bill being introduced. It was long overdue. It was due in 1897; and in June, 1898, the right hon. Member for the Cambridge University ordered the inquiry to which reference had been made. In 1899 the right hon. Gentleman told the House the matter was of such importance that it could not wait any longer, and the Bill would now be brought in. Nothing should be done to endanger this Bill, which, although a very small one, would confer great benefit. But it was two years overdue. It was drafted by the Departmental Committee two years ago, and since then public opinion had considerably ripened. One fundamental principle recommended by the Committee had not been carried out. They had recommended a statutory minimum to which the local authorities were empowered to superadd bye-laws to carry the matter still further. The only statutory minimum in this Bill was that children under the age of eleven should not be employed in street trading. He hoped upstairs he should be able to persuade the Committee to say they should not be employed in trade at all. He should also suggest that the age should be raised from eleven to twelve. With regard to the other statutory minimum, with regard to children not being allowed to work between nine in the evening and six in the morning, subject to variations the Bill was nothing like so far-reaching as the minimum recommended by the Departmental Committee. These hours had been varied in the same manner as they were varied in the Scotch Acts. Another recommendation which had not been carried out at all was that which recommended a certain minimum number of hours. He thought that if a child worked twenty-seven and a-half hours a week in school, they should not be allowed to work more than twenty-eight hours out of school; that was quite sufficient for them to do. He was very doubtful whether young girls should ever be licensed for street trading, but he would certainly suggest that no girl under the age of fourteen should be licensed. He would suggest that street trading should be confined to girls over the age of fourteen.

A further point was that no factory half-timer ought under any circumstances to be licensed for street trading. He would further suggest, though he hardly expected to carry the House with him, these licences should be six day licences. He did not mind which day was struck out; there might be special reasons in some cases for including the Sabbath, but in any case, if they were in earnest in their desire to improve the physique of the children, one day in seven ought to be exempted. In the matter of definitions, all ambiguity would be removed if instead of those suggested in the Bill the definitions as set forth in the Education Act of 1876 were adopted. He sincerely thanked the Government for introducing the Bill, and even if he did not succeed in securing the Amendments he had suggested, he hoped the measure would be placed on the Statute-book in the course of the session.


agreed with those who thought that any compulsion that was applied should be general rather than local in its character. Whilst he believed that the raising of the age from fourteen to sixteen would be going beyond what was necessary in the case of certain occupations, and that such regulations would press very hardly on certain classes of the community, he thought it would be better that whatever bye-laws were made should be applicable either to rural areas or urban districts throughout the country, instead of being made at the option of individual local authorities. In regard to the rural districts, it would be very difficult to draw up regulations which, while preventing the employment of children in occupations in regard to which it was quite proper that such regulations should be made, would not apply to agricultural operations in connection with which no such restrictions were necessary. He hoped the Bill would be referred to the Grand Committee on Trade, which invariably had charge of measures affecting factories and workshops and so forth.

MR. JOHN BURNS (Battersea)

said it was a happy augury for the passage of the Bill that there should be so much unanimity as to its merits and the principle underlying its proposals. He believed that one of the chief reasons for its sympathetic reception was the fact urged over and over again in the recent Army debates, viz., the deterioration of the physique of the classes from which the recruits were largely drawn. If the Report of the Adjutant - General for Recruiting were examined, it would be found that the proposals of the Bill provided the remedy for many of the things therein referred to. He believed that a large proportion of the 33 per cent. of the recruits in certain manufacturing districts, who according to General Morris were rejected because they were incapable of passing the Army doctors, were boys who, between the ages of seven and fourteen, had been engaged in the very street occupations this Bill was designed to improve. It was creditable to the good sense of the House of Commons that it had seen, on information adduced, that the physique of certain sections of the working classes was deteriorating, and that having found it out it was willing to adopt a Bill by which a large amount of that deterioration would be stopped. As representing a large working-class district, he thanked the Government for introducing the Bill. The bread they were now placing on the waters would return after many days in the shape of improved physique, more vigorous constitutions, and a diminished number of unemployed adult workpeople. The Bill had not been introduced too soon; it was both desirable and necessary. As for local option, he was in favour of it when it succeeded; but if he had to choose between a lax system of administration by local authorities, varying one from another in their practice, and administration by a rigid centralised department, he would prefer the Home Office to the local authority.

He agreed with the hon. Member for Manchester that contiguous towns with comparable industries should have co-equal treatment, and that, in the event of, say, Manchester and Salford not adopting similar provisions, the Home Office should have power to compel them to do so. He did not think the local authorities would be so eager to adopt the Bill as the House of Commons, and he suggested there should be a clause enabling the Home Office, in cases of such reluctance, to convert the "may" into "shall." As to the statutory minimum, he agreed with the hon. Member for North Camber well that local authorities should not be allowed to go below such minimum, but that they should be able to go above it if they so desired. Then on page 3, clause 4, sub-section 2, "persons" should be converted into "persons or localities," so that if localities made representations to the Home Secretary as to unfair administration by a neighbouring locality the right hon. Gentleman would be able to listen to them. As to the declaration that no child under eleven years of age should be permitted to be employed in street trading, there were children of eleven and children of eleven. Some boys of eleven, who had been brought up under good conditions, in good homes, with good food, and by good parents, were much more capable of undertaking certain manual occupations than other boys of thirteen, fourteen, or even fifteen, who had been reared under adverse conditions. In such cases the medical officer ought to be able to vary the certificate, so that children of eleven who were physically unfit should not be licensed. He strongly supported the proposal for a six-days licence.

Many Members would be under the impression that by enforcing the Bill an injustice would be done, here and there, to orphans. An orphan boy or girl of whatever age was a sympathetic figure, and the House ought to agree to anything that would enable him or her to get on in life. But they must not allow sympathy for exceptional cases to carry them away from the bedrock demand of the Bill—that the employment of children should be substantially Ameliorated. It was a remarkable fact that those who most strongly supported the Bill were schoolmasters, who knew the children in the schools; doctors, who knew their physique; and Poor-Law Guardians Why did the last named support it? Because they were continually having brought before them the evils inflicted by child labour, not only on the children themselves but on the parents, who too frequently were enabled to contract drunken and dissolute habits by the excessive over-work and the long hours of their children. He had been desired by the chairman of a Board of Guardians to say that one of the most fruitful sources of loafer fathers and dissolute mothers was the extent to which parents were able, by exploiting the labour of their children, to exempt themselves from working. Side by side with the grisly industrial fact that there were 400,000 adult unemployed, they had no right to be told there were 150,000 children able to work.

Let them go to Paris to see the way in which the selling of newspapers was conducted. In Paris it was much better conducted than in this country, where they allowed children between seven and twelve years of age to hang about in the streets selling newspapers until one o'clock in the morning. Instead of this Bill doing harm to the orphans, it would improve their condition, and all the Poor-Law Guardians would thank the Government. He believed this measure would do much to improve not only the physique but the rapidly decaying manners of the street children, who were not only weak but immoral in their habits, and blackguardly in their manners, simply because they were allowed to work in the streets when they ought to be in bed, or in the playground.

MR. SEELY (Lincoln)

said he wished to point out one matter upon which he thought a great deal might be said. He was sorry that he could not agree with the hon. Member for Battersea and the hon. Member for Camber well in regard to the employment of children under eleven years of age. One clause provided that a child under eleven years of age should not be employed in street trade. He thought it would be a much wiser course if that matter were left to the local authorities. He thought it was undesirable to make this hard and fast line. A considerable number of respect able children were employed in selling newspapers without any injury to themselves. He was aware that the conditions of street trading varied very much indeed. Street trading in a country town or a village was much different to selling newspapers in Piccadilly or in the Haymarket, and it would be better if this particular clause, instead of being made a hard and fast rule, was left to the local authorities to decide whether there was any reason why that provision should be carried out. With those remarks he could only say how heartily he appreciated the intentions of the right hon. Gentleman, and how he reciprocated what had been said upon this subject. He hoped this Bill would be passed, and that it would have the effect of improving the conditions under which children were employed.

Bill read a second time, and committed to the Standing Committee on Trade, etc.