HC Deb 10 February 1908 vol 183 cc1432-7

in asking leave to bring in a Bill "to consolidate and amend the law relating to the protection of children and young persons, reformatory and industrial schools, and juvenile offenders, and otherwise to amend the law with respect to children and young persons," said: This is the first reading of a Bill to which we can give no narrower title than that of "Children Bill." The present law for the protection of children and the treatment of juvenile offenders is in some confusion. It is spread over a large number of statutes, and it urgently needs consolidation. Experience has shown the need of a considerable number of amendments and extensions of the law. The Government have decided not to introduce a series of small Bills in successive years, but to ask Parliament to enact, in one large and comprehensive measure, a thorough codification, and amendment of the law relating to children. A Bill of this scope could not, in a crowded session like this, expect to pass into law unless it commanded, more or less, the favour of all sections in the House, and we have, therefore, excluded from it all the subjects which might properly be described as controversial. Even the question of children in publichouses, with regard to which there is a general measure of assent, we have thought it wiser to defer to be dealt with in the Licensing Bill. The question of the employment of children, whether in factories or elsewhere, raises important industrial questions on which, unhappily, there is not complete agreement. The question of education naturally belongs to the Education Acts, and there are other subjects which we might have liked to include but which we have been obliged to omit. But, even with these omissions, the Bill is a somewhat voluminous one. It contains 119 clauses, covers seventy pages, and consolidates twenty-two statutes and parts of many others, together with a number of new provisions. For the convenience of the House, and of the public who are interested, I have had prepared a White Paper, which will show clearly, clause by clause, the effect of this Bill on existing legislation, and which will be circulated at the same time as the Bill. The Bill extends to the whole of the United Kingdom. Through all its parts uniform definitions run. A child is a person under the age of fourteen years; a young person is a person above the age of fourteen and under the age of sixteen. The first part of the Bill embodies the Infant Life Protection Act, 1897, which was passed to stop the evils of baby farming and for the protection of the lives of infants put out to nurse. That Act has been found in practice ineffective in many respects. There are many holes through which evil-disposed persons may escape its control, but, by a series of detailed amendments we stop those holes and strengthen the control of the Act. One disputed point in connection with this measure we have left, for the moment, an open question. The Act of 1897 exempted from inspection those persons who received one nurse-child, and not more than one, in consideration, not of a lump sum, but of periodical payments. Since the passage of the Act there has been a keen controversy among those who are best entitled to speak as to whether this class of home should be included in the Act or not. I have no time now to enter into the merits of that dispute but we shall ask the House to appoint a Select Committee on this point which will hear evidence and report, and whose conclusions, I trust and expect, will be received in time to enable them to be embodied in the Bill at its later stages. The second part of the Bill re-enacts the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act, 1894, with a large number of amendments mainly designed to strengthen the law and to facilitate the action of those societies which are doing such admirable work in the three kingdoms for the prevention of cruelty to children. I will mention only two of the chief provisions proposed in this part of the Bill. Every year some 1,600 infants meet their deaths from overlying, a waste of infant life which should easily be preventible and which ought not to be allowed to continue. We propose, in such cases, since the offence is not one of wilful cruelty, but of negligence, to make the penalty a light one, except where drunkenness can be proved. An equal number of children are killed year by year from burns and scalds owing to their being left in rooms with unguarded fires. We impose in such cases, also, a similar penalty, except where it can be shown that reasonable precautions were taken. The proposals of the third part of the Bill deal with an evil, growing in extent, most deleterious to child life, and for which public opinion almost universally demands a remedy. I refer to the evil of juvenile smoking. The Committee on Physical Deterioration recommended a legislative remedy, and a Committee of the House of Lords, appointed in 1906 specially to examine this question, after hearing much medical and other evidence, made a unanimous and a very emphatic recommendation in the same sense. Many countries throughout the world have already legislated on this subject. We propose to prohibit the sale of cigarettes and cigarette paper to children under the age of sixteen, to prohibit persons under the age of sixteen from smoking in streets and public places, and to make them liable for the first offence to no more than a reprimand, but for subsequent offences to a light fine. We also allow, and this will probably prove a more effective provision, the police and other authorised persons to confiscate the tobacco which is being used by those little boys who are found smoking in streets and public places. We have a provision also for dealing with such automatic machines for the sale of cigarettes as are found to be extensively used by juveniles. The fourth part of the Bill consolidates the nineteen Statutes which now contain the law relating to reformatory and industrial schools. The changes we propose are too many and too minute to deal with now, but I would like to mention that it has been suggested that the age for committal to a reformatory should be raised above the present figure of sixteen, and to explain that we are not adopting that suggestion only because we consider that it is inadvisable to mix older offenders with smaller boys and girls, and because my right hon. friend the Home Secretary hopes to introduce a Bill establishing a new class of reformatories for these older offenders. There are in the Bill a number of miscellaneous clauses, of which I will only mention two. From time to time cases of cruelty and neglect are discovered in so-called homes for children which are fraudulent institutions, conducted by persons who live on the charitable contributions which are intended for the destitute children whom they have collected. There is no right of entry under the present law to such institutions, and the Bill provides that, where a home is kept for destitute children and is supported by charitable contributions, there shall be a right of entry for persons authorised by the Secretary of State. Regard will be had in the selection of such persons to the religious denomination by which such homes are being maintained. The other clause is one designed to solve the difficult and long-standing problem of the vagrant child. There are some hundreds of children, who are now continually taken about the country, deprived of any opportunity of schooling, educated only in vagabondage, and denied many of the most elementary benefits of a civilised life. We propose a clause which, we hope, will stop that once and for all. We adapt the machinery of the Compulsory Education Acts, which are at present found to be inapplicable to these cases, to meet the requirements of the vagrant child. The last part of the Bill, which has to do with juvenile offenders, is based upon three main principles. The first is that the child offender ought to be kept separate from the adult criminal, and should receive at the hands of the law a treatment differentiated to suit his special needs—that the courts should be agencies for the rescue as well as the punishment of children. We require the establishment throughout the country of juvenile courts—that is to say, children's cases shall be heard in a court held in a separate room or at a separare time from the courts which are held for adult cases, and that the public who are not concerned in the cases shall be excluded from admission. In London we propose to appoint by administrative action a special children's magistrate to visit in turn a circuit of courts. Further, we require police authorities throughout the whole of the country to establish places of detention to which children shall be committed on arrest, if they are not bailed, and on remand or commitment for trial, instead of being committed to prison. A great many towns have already provided places of detention, and we require that this practice should be made universal. We anticipate that a Treasury grant will be made for the maintenance of children, in places of detention, on remand. The second principle on which this Bill is based is that the parent of the child offender must be made to feel more responsible for the wrong-doing of his child. He cannot be allowed to neglect the upbringing of his children, and having committed the grave offence of throwing on society a child criminal, wash his hands of the consequences and escape scot free. We require the attendance in Court of the parent in all cases where the child is charged, where there is no valid reason to the contrary, and we considerably enlarge the powers, already conferred upon the magistrates by the Youthful Offenders Act of 1901, to require the parent where it is just to do so, to pay the fines inflicted for the offence which his child has committed. The third principle which we had in view in framing this part of the Bill is that the commitment of children in the common gaols, no matter what the offence may be that is committed, is an unsuitable penalty to impose. The child is made to feel for the rest of his life that he is regarded as a criminal and belongs to the criminal classes, and at the same time that vague dread of the unknown penalties of imprisonment, which is one of the most powerful deterrents of crime, becomes useless and nugatory. After consultation with many of the chief judicial and legal authorities of the country, the Government has come to the conclusion that the time has now arrived when Parliament can be asked to abolish the imprisonment of children altogether, and we extend this proposal to the age of sixteen, with a few carefully defined and necessary exceptions. Many methods will still be left in the hands of the courts for dealing with delinquent children, but where none of the ordinary methods are suitable, our Bill will permit the committal of the child for a short period, under Home Office rules and a proper system of classification, to the places of detention which have to be provided for remand cases. Such committals we anticipate will be exceedingly few, and a similar Treasury grant will be paid in respect of them. It has not been easy to explain in the ten or fifteen minutes which the rule allows a Bill of so wide a scope as this, but I trust I have been able to say enough to bespeak for the Bill the favourable consideration of the House.

Motion made, and Question, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill to consolidate and amend the Law relating to the protection of Children and Young Persons, reformatory and industrial schools, and juvenile offenders and otherwise to amend the Law with respect to Children and Young Persons,"—put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Herbert Samuel and Mr. Secretary Gladstone.