HC Deb 08 May 1907 vol 174 cc294-9

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving the Second Reading, said the Bill was of a non-controversial character, and the Government had not heard a whisper of opposition to it from any quarter in the House. Its purpose was to enable Courts of Justice to appoint probation officers, and pay them salaries or fees, so that certain offenders whom the Court did not think fit to imprison, on account of their age, character, or antecedents might be placed on probation under the supervision of these officers, whose duty it would be to guide, admonish, and befriend them. Under the Bill the various Courts of Justice would have complete freedom of choice as to the officers they would appoint, and he hoped that with this latitude in a few years experience would show what class of men, or of women, should best be placed in charge of these cases. The Bill embodied the provisions of the First Offenders Act, it was desired by reformers of our penal system throughout the country, and he trusted that the House would give it a Second Reading, leaving the discussion of details to the Committee. He begged to move.

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

*MR. CAVE (Surrey, Kingston)

said that so far as this Bill re-enacted some of the provisions of the First Offenders Act, he had nothing to say against it; but on reading the Bill he found it difficult to understand exactly what the powers and duties of the probation officers would be. Supposing an offender on probation went about the country in search of employment, would it be the duty of the officer under whose supervision he had been placed to follow him up in order to see how he behaved or could the officer go into a probationer's house without permission? He ventured to say that the Bill as it stood was only a skeleton, but he hoped that in Committee it would be moulded into a practical shape, and that the duties of the probation officers would be more exactly defined. He knew of very many cases where the assistance of the Police Court Missionaries had been the saving of prisoners released under the First Offenders Act; and he wanted an assurance that there would be no objection to the appointment of such missionaries to the position of probation officers.

*MR. COCHRANE (Ayrshire, N.)

said that the Bill had come forward somewhat unexpectedly, and the Under-Secretary for the Home Office had done his best to explain it briefly. But the measure was one of great complexity, and would have to be carefully considered in Committee. He quite agreed that a great deal might be done in making the lot of first offenders easier and more humane than it now was But a great deal depended upon the method. The hon. Gentleman had suggested that the duty of the probation officers was to guide, admonish, and befriend first offenders. That was a point which would require very careful consideration in connection with men who in search of work had gone away from where their offence had been committed. One of the objections to the present administration of the criminal law was that a ticket-of-leaveman, honestly desirous of reforming his life, had frequently to report himself to the nearest police station, that militated against him by making his conviction known. In the same manner mach harm might be done to a young offender under this Bill it he were pursued about the country by a probation officer, anxious to guide, admonish, watch, and befriend him, and he would remind the Under Secretary that Section 3 provided that a probation officer might be a police constable. He asked the hon. Gentleman to recognise some of the difficulties which might occur, and possibly at the end of Clause 1 some words should be inserted to insure that those persons charged with the supervision of probationers should be carefully selected for the delicate duties they would have to perform. In the case of girls and young children, women should be employed, and in the case of those probationers whose mental condition was such that it was considered expedient to release them, such persons only should be employed to supervise them whose training and experience fitted them to cope with mental cases. He did not make these few cursory remarks in any hostile spirit, and he was sure that the Government would afford an adequate opportunity for discussing the details of the Bill in Committee.

MR. PICKERSGILL (Bethnal Green, S. W.)

said the Bill would be welcomed by a large body of public opinion in the country. This system of probation had been for many years in active operation in the United States, especially in Massachusetts, and in some of our Colonies, and he believed it had had excellent results. In our own country also the principle of the Bill had been already to some extent carried out, because the Court missionaries had largely performed the duties which it was the object of the Bill to regularise. Whatever might be the effect of the system on adults, there could be no doubt that it would have a salutary effect in the case of children.

*MR. STUART WORTLEY (Sheffield, Hallam)

wished to reinforce to some extent the doubts as to what were to be the duties and, still more important, the obligations of this entirely new class of persons they were going to create under the name of probation officers. The Bill created, by using a new word, a new status pupillaris. The intentions of the Bill were undoubtedly excellent and of the very best kind, but hon. Members were not doing their duty if they did not draw attention to the fact that the Bill in general terms relegated probationers to what was called the supervision of the probation officers. What deduction was to be made from the liberty of the person who was placed under the control of a probation officer? A new kind of quasi criminal relation was being created by the measure. Would the probation officers have the right of entry into a person's house, and if not why not? Was the officer to have the right of following a person about the country? Such questions as these must necessarily occur to persons when they saw a now kind of legal relationship being created. He did not attach much importance to figures for Massachusetts, because no one would deny that in this country there had always rightly been greater solicitude about the liberty of the subject than was the case in other countries. He wished very well to the intention of the Bill, but it was only right that attention should be drawn to the imperfect way in which some of its provisions had been drawn up.


wished to give his hearty support to the Bill. As one who had had sixteen or seventeen years experience in connection with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children he said that whatever its effect as to adults might be, nothing but good could arise from the probation officers undertaking the charge of children who had come before the Court, for they came from homes which would be all the better for being looked after. He regretted that there was no provision in the Bill making compulsory the holding of children's Courts.

MR. LEIF JONES (Westmoreland, Appleby)

thought that it was a mistake to suppose that this Bill would be useful only in the case of children. The probation officers would be very useful in a large number of cases, such as habitual drunkenness, with which the Courts were unable to deal in a remedial sense. It must be remembered that the persons who came under the control of the probation officers would already have become liable to imprisonment or other punishment. He hoped that by tact and judgment the probation officers would be able to rescue these persons, which was a great deal more important than punishing them. There was a demand for this Bill among social reformers in the country.


said that the Bill really introduced nothing new except the creation of the probation officer. Clause 1 merely reenacted the power which already existed of binding a prisoner over in his own recognisances to come up for judgment when called upon. Any of the Members of the House who had sat as magistrates or recorders knew that that was a very common form indeed, and the power had been used in the country for years. The only new point being the appointment of probation officers, he wished to know what their powers ought to be. First offenders were also dealt with most kindly and considerately under the provisions of the law. Before he assented to a new class of officials he would like to know what their powers were to be. It was a common thing to tell a man that if he did not get into trouble again he would hear no more of the case, but would this probation officer have the power to follow a man and be something in the nature of a police officer? He had no particular objection to the Bill if it was merely a benevolent measure to provide and pay somebody like the Court missionary, with no legal powers, to look after the offender. If that was all it was an excellent Bill and he should not think of opposing it.


said the Government certainly could not plead guilty to vagueness. He pointed out that Clause 1, subsection (4), explicitly said the Court might order the offender to be— Under the supervision of such person as may be named in the order during the period specified in the order, and such other conditions for securing such supervision as may be specified in the order. That was the nature of the powers the Government proposed to give, and as to the "other conditions" they considered that details of that nature had better be determined by regulations or rules of Court. If hon. Members opposite proposed in Committee Amendments to make the terms more explicit, his right hon. friend would no doubt consider them. In reply to the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Cambridge University, he would point out that Clause 3 gave ample powers to the Court to secure that the offender should obey the order under which he was placed. There were full powers, if the offender failed to observe any of the conditions of his recognisance, to summon him to the Court, and, if necessary, to commit him to prison. No doubt the Bill created an interference with the person's liberty, but it was intended to be an alternative to imprisonment. It was a milder form of punishment than imprisonment. The probation officer was not intended to be a person in uniform like a police officer. It was better for an offender to submit to this supervision than to undergo imprisonment.


considered the Bill a short step in the right direction. Its main object was to give Judges and magistrates power, where the offence required something more than a mere binding over, to decide whether the person should be sent to prison or whether some milder punishment might be imposed. It was quite certain that a reform of this kind was remedial in its character. It was not to punish more but to impose a mild form of Penalty so that the offender might not go into the category of gaol-birds.

MR. CROOKS (Woolwich)

thought the Bill provided a remedy against offenders slipping back into their old environment and amongst old temptations. If there were somebody just to lay a hand on their shoulder and say, "My friend, unless you behave yourself, I shall feel obliged to return you to a place where you do not want to go," that would often suffice to save them from yielding to temptation. He had known many cases of failure due to persons of this character having slipped back to their old environments; they had finished up with long terms of imprisonment, and one case ended in capital punishment being inflicted.