HC Deb 23 July 1913 vol 55 cc2171-6

Postponed Proceeding resumed on Question, "That a sum, not exceeding £177,613, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1914, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of His Majesty's Secretary of State for the Home Department and Subordinate Offices." [Note.—£90,000 has been voted on account.]

Question again proposed. Debate resumed.


When the Proceedings were interrupted by the private Bill, I was drawing attention to the administration of the Children Act. In view of the fact that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Keir Hardie) wishes to bring a matter forward, I propose to give way to him. Upon sonic other occasion I hope I shall have an opportunity of drawing the attention of the Home Office to the administration of that Act. I had an uncompleted sentence at 8.15, and it is only fair I should complete it. I was pointing out that there is a curious spectacle presented in London which is not to be seen in any other city in the world, namely, that parents on a wet day often go into a public-house, and, owing to the Children Act, are compelled to leave little children outside in the rain. I am not saying that to challenge the "children's charter," but to point out that legislation of that sort cannot be considered final. I know nothing more tantalising to anybody who has worked for the welfare of the-children in London, as some of us have, than to see that spectacle at the public-house doors on wet days in this great Metropolis. It is a scandal and a shame to our civilisation. I do not blame the Act for it, but it is one of the results of the Act. Out of deference to the wish of the hon. Member (Mr. Keir Hardie), I terminate my remarks now to give him the opportunity he wants.


I want to call attention to one or two points in connection with the administration of what is popularly known as the "Cat and Mouse" Act. There is one point upon which the Committee and the country are entitled to more information that has yet been given. The Committee is entitled to know under what authority the Home Office caused the police to enter the Pavilion, on Monday last, to rearrest Mrs. Pankhurst. She was out on licence under the terms of the new Act, and, after an attempt made to rescue her failed, then, so far as I know, for the first time, the police were authorised to enter a building and to arrest the lady there. I ask the Home Secretary under what authority that was done, and why the police were also authorised, in the cases of persons liberated under these licences, to enter private houses for the purpose of rearresting them. My second point is that when arrests are being made there are frequent complaints against the undue and unnecessary force used by the police when making the arrests. I do not propose to go into that case because it is sub judice, but I desire to raise it in its general form, and suggest to the Home Secretary that special instructions should be issued to the police that no hitting or punching should be employed when making these arrests.

Then I desire to ask the Home Secretary whether he is satisfied with the administration of the Act himself? The idea of its being introduced and carried through under its present administration was to ensure that the law might be respected and that these prisoners should not be able to go upon hunger strike. We warned the Home Secretary that this anticipation was doomed to failure, and the facts as they have been disclosed since the Act came into operation speak for themselves. I ask the Home Secretary whether the whole method by which the Act is being administered is not calculated to bring the law into contempt. You find these women being arrested one day, being put into prison, going upon the hunger strike, at the end of three, four, or five days being liberated on licence, again dragged back to prison, the same performance repeated, and meanwhile the country is looking on with a feeling partly of disgust and partly of horror. It would be a thousand times better to revert to the old practice. There was some dignity about that proceeding. The present method of administering what is called the "Cat and Mouse" Act has neither dignity nor is it calculated to enhance respect either for the law or for its administration. The prolongation of the agony which these women are bound to suffer is revolting every feeling of humanity, and it is not only active supporters of the militant section of women who are feeling this, but many of those who have no sympathy either with the methods or the tactics of the militant section, but who realise that they cannot stand quietly by and see these methods of long-drawn-out torture continued in the name of law and order. The Home Secretary and the authorities generally must, sooner or later, admit that this Act is bound to fail of its purpose, as all former methods have failed. In the interests of law and order, in the interests of the reputation of the country, this method of torturing women who are engaged in what they believe to be a right struggling, is not one which should be allowed to be continued. I, therefore, suggest that if the Government is not prepared to adopt the only method of putting an end to this agitation and bring in a Bill for the enfranchisement of women, then at least this method of barbarism should not be continued in its present form.


I will reply to the questions put to me by the hon. Member. He desired to know under what authority the Home Office on Monday last effected: the arrest of Mrs. Pankhurst. No special' authority was required for that purpose. It was open for the police to arrest her just as they could arrest anybody else in such circumstances. Mrs. Pankhurst being a convict at large was liable to be arrested. The hon. Member asked whether the police would be authorised to enter private houses. If he means whether they would be authorised to break in, the answer is—No, unless they have a warrant; but if a private house is open to them, they are at perfect liberty to enter and effect an arrest. Then the hon. Member said there had been ill-treatment of people by the police. Anyone who has read an account of what took place at this meeting must, I think, agree that the hon. Member's description is a real travesty of the facts. When you see that the police were outnumbered I do not know how many times, that they endeavoured to do their duty in a proper way, and that they were unlawfully and brutally resisted, I fail to see that he has made out a shadow of a case against them. His other question was whether I was satisfied with the administration of the Act. He stated that the intention of the Act was in order to prevent suffragist prisoners liberating themselves at will by going on hunger-strike. The hon. Member is mistaken. The intention of the Act was that when prisoners were liberatedfor hunger - striking, they should not have their sentence discharged, but that they should still have it hanging over them. I am perfectly satisfied with the way in which the Act has been administered. It has effected its purpose. When we are confronted with the situation in which these women refute to take their food, we have now power which we had not got before to liberate them in order to prevent them committing suicide, and yet, while we liberate them, we still retain power to enforce the law and to compel them to serve the sentence imposed upon them by the Courts. The hon. Member spoke of the torture to which the prisoners are subjected. We offer them food, and if they refuse it they are torturing themselves. It is ridiculous to suggest that in the administration of this law there has been the slightest torture inflicted upon any prisoner by any prison official, or by any servant of the Government. The practice of the prison officials is to treat all prisoners with humanity—humanity which is not exceptional, but humanity in the ordinary course and according to the manner in which all prisoners are treated. If they refuse to take food, or, as some of them are now adopting the practice, refusing to take water, they are undoubtedly injuring their own health, and undoubtedly the effect of their action on their constitutions may be serious and permanent. But the action is their own and they cannot hope to liberate themselves from the law. They cannot hope to become licensed law breakers merely by the expressed determination to take neither food nor water. The law has passed punishment upon these women, and so long as the powers which the law has vested in the Home Office remain in my hands to administer I shall do my best to enforce the law. The hon. Member has said that it would be better to let them commit suicide than to murder them. We are doing neither the one nor the other. It is impossible for the administrator of the law to say that prisoners shall not commit suicide. But we will not be parties to their committing suicide. At the same time we will make every effort to enforce the law and ensure that these prisoners, who have been properly convicted and are being properly punished, shall be made to endure the sentence of the law.


I do not rise for the purpose of adding to the very great difficulty which undoubtedly besets any Minister who has to enforce the law under very difficult circumstances. So far as I am concerned, my only object has always been to see that the law is enforced. My object in enforcing the law is to put a stop to crime. It is not in order to punish the criminal. The punishment of the criminal is a necessary evil, an evil which we all deplore, and which we would all see avoided if possible. I should be glad if the Home Secretary had been able to answer the question: How far the administration of this Act has, in fact, stopped the committal of crime l If it is achieving its object in putting a stop to crime, yet it is so much in the general interests of the community to put a stop to crime that I would make very little criticism of the actual methods that were employed. But, judging as a man in the street, without any official information, and no information of any other kind, I must say that the impression made upon me by the administration of the Act is not favourable. If it is stopping crime, that is a matter which is within the knowledge of the authorities no doubt, but the actual effect of it is not favourable to a mere onlooker. The same crime apparently is going on, the same criminal is being arrested, and liberated, after being told by a judge of the High Court that she may look for no mercy. After being told to look for no remission of her sentence she is, from the point of view of the outsider, liberated after three or four days. She again commits some crime or defiance of the law, is again arrested and again liberated; and that has taken place two or three times in the case of some prisoners. I cannot say that that strikes me as a very dignified or a very satisfactory method of administering the law, but I confess that I feel this about the whole Act. You may arrest a prisoner for a very trifling offence. One was arrested the other day for obstructing the police. She was bound over, but refused to be bound over, and a sentence of fourteen days' imprisonment was passed She was released after four days, and I believe she is to be rearrested some time this week. It does not seem a very good plan—

It being Eleven of the clock the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House; Committee report Progress; to sit again To-morrow (Thursday).