HC Deb 28 January 1930 vol 234 cc926-33

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill was introduced in another place quite recently, and received support from all parties, the Second Reading being carried without a Division. The purpose of the Bill is to provide further protection for young persons, chiefly young women, who go abroad to fulfil theatrical and dancing engagements, by raising the age from 16 to 18 below which a licence will be required before any person can go abroad for the purpose of singing, playing, performing or being exploited for profit. A considerable number of English artists travel abroad on the Continent and go as far afield as South America. These young artists prove to be very popular with foreign audiences, and in many cases find regular and well-paid employment. Where they are engaged by agents of repute, who undertake to see that their terms of contract are satisfactory, that the salaries paid are proper, and that ample provision is made not merely while they are in foreign countries but also for their return home when the contract terminates, there is very little room for criticism. But, unhappily, our experience proves that there are many agents who are not of repute, many employers who are unscrupulous, and owing to the absence of restrictions governing music halls and theatres in foreign countries the nature of the occupation of these young persons gives rise to grave risks and exploitation by those who do not display a proper regard for the interest of those they employ.

Consequently, it is felt desirable in the interests of these young persons that legislation of a more stringent character should be passed, and I am hopeful that there will be little hostility to this Measure, because the House of Commons has always shown great anxiety for the lives and welfare of young people. Parliament has already indulged in some legislation on this matter. In 1913 the Children (Employment Abroad) Act was passed. It did two things. First of all, it made it an offence to allow young children under the age of 14 to go out of the United Kingdom for the purpose of singing, playing or performing or being exploited for profit, and it provided that licences must be obtained from a magistrate sitting at Bow Street before young persons between the ages of 14 and 16 years proceeded abroad for the purposes I have mentioned. When a licence is issued the magistrate inquires into the terms of the contract, sees that the conditions governing the employment of young people are proper, and also that arrangements are made for the return of these young people who find employment in foreign countries. His Majesty's Consul in the countries affected also sees that the conditions are properly carried out.

6.0 p.m.

The Act to which I have referred has worked very well. We have discovered that the number of young persons between the ages of 14 and 16 so employed is very small indeed. The number is considerably higher between the ages of 16 and 18. I find that between June, 1928, and June, 1929, 559 passports were issued to the women and young persons of whom I am speaking. To those under 16 only eight were issued; to those over 16 and under 18 the number issued was 95; and to those over 18 and under 21 the number was 147. The House will agree that the risk to the young woman between the ages of 16 and 18 is really greater than the risk to those between the ages of 14 and 16. The attention of the Home Office has been called to many cases, details of which I have here, which justify this Measure being introduced. In connection with the issues of passports the Foreign Office is prepared, by administrative action, to come to the rescue of these young people. Before issuing passports to those under the age of 21 they have sought to supervise in some measure the terms of the contracts. But we have found that that is totally inadequate and that the protection given to these young persons is incomplete. In connection with the League of Nations some inquiry was recently made, and many cases were reported of girls, owing to their employment in this kind of work, finding their way into doubtful places and giving rise to the supply of prostitution. When the League of Nations had this matter under discussion the protection which this country afforded, by virtue of the Act of 1913, was strongly recommended, and His Majesty's Government then stated that it was proposed to raise the age from 16 to 18, which is the purpose of this Bill.

After these general remarks, let me state in definite terms what the Bill seeks to do. First of all, as I have said, it is proposed to raise the age from 16 to 18. It will be illegal for children below the age of 14 years to take employment for these purposes in foreign countries. Between the ages of 14 and 18 they will have to obtain a licence before they can accept employment abroad. In order to obtain a licence the applicant will have to go before the magistrate at Bow Street, who, from his wide experience, will see that the terms of the contracts are such as to safeguard the interests of these inexperienced young persons who seek to go to foreign countries, sometimes as far afield as South America. The magistrate will see that the wages or salaries to be paid are satisfactory, that the type of music-hall is such that the young persons ought to be employed in it, and, finally, that there is proper supervision—this is a vital matter—for the return of the young persons to this country when the contract is ended. The proposal of the Bill is one which will not arouse any hostility in any part of the House. As the Bill has found complete support in another place, I am hoping that the same thing will occur here. I am assured that those who are engaged in the theatrical business, those who understand the need for this kind of legislation, those who are familiar with the danger arising from the employment of these young people in foreign countries, give their support to the Bill. I think I may also express the opinion that the public will welcome a Bill of this kind, and I commend it to the House.


The proposals of the Bill and the speech of the Under-Secretary of State to the Home Office will commend themselves to all quarters of the House. This is indeed a proposal upon which all well-disposed people can unite. My right hon. Friend the late Home Secretary, now Lord Brentford, took a considerable part with reference to this proposal. I believe he was one of those who helped to draft the Bill, and that he put the assistance of the Home Office at the disposal of those who first brought the proposal forward. Even those who look somewhat suspiciously at any attempts to interfere with the liberty of the subject and take a rather strict view on matters of that kind, will agree that it is the duty of the State to see that young persons who are about to be engaged in entertainments of the character described receive, when they leave our shores, that protection which we can properly give them. Everyone will agree that we owe a good deal to our Consuls and Vice-Consuls in this matter. They have undoubtedly gone to a great deal of pains and have taken many steps to give what assistance and protection they could to many young people who have found themselves adrift in some foreign country. I do not think that we should forget the service that they have clone. Institutions like the Salvation Army and other people who do work in connection with young persons have urged on the House the necessity of increasing the age from 16 to 18. That proposal will undoubtedly bring in a good many more people than were brought under the provisions of the original Act. I am glad that that is so, and I hope that the Bill will have a speedy passage.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir A. LAMBERT WARD

Without in any way wishing to introduce a discordant note into the Debate, it seems to me that the objects which this Bill seeks to attain could be attained almost equally well by strengthening and making more rigid the passport regulations. In that way the purpose of the Bill would be reached equally effectively without any risk of giving offence to foreign and Continental countries. In my opinion this Bill is tantamount to saying that we do not consider foreign countries fit places for our children to go to. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] It is so. We say that the young persons must go to these foreign countries only under the strictest supervision and regulations. It is true that the same thing was said in 1913, but in those days we had very much less regard for the susceptibilities of public opinion on the Continent than we profess to have to-day. In those days we were not making every effort, as we are to-day, to encourage the will for peace throughout the world. By legislation of this kind it seems to me that there is a risk of giving the impression abroad that we are insulting foreign countries regarding their morals and their manners. That is rather an unfortunate thing to do, especially when the purpose which we have in view can he equally well achieved at the Passport Office.

Another point which has occurred to me is that this Bill is not quite as satisfactory as it could be. It is true that the principal onus is placed upon the agents. It is perfectly right that an agent should be responsible for finding suitable employment to offer to young persons abroad, but at the same time the Bill endeavours to place a corresponding measure of responsibility upon the parent or the guardian. Up to the age of 14 parents have considerable power over their children, but I am very much afraid that in these days the average parent has very little control over a son or daughter who is rapidly approaching the age of 18, especially if that son or daughter is in a position to earn a good livelihood. Furthermore, there is placed upon the parent or guardian the responsibility for bringing that child back from abroad when the licence has expired. How on earth is the parent or guardian to live up to that responsibility? It is almost an impossible thing for him or her to do. Once a young person has left these shores and is in remunerative employment in a foreign country, it seems to me that even with the aid of the British Consuls throughout the world it is impossible to expect a parent or guardian to bring his or her child back to these shores.

That being so, it seems to me that it is rather a mistake to pass legislation which it is so difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. But the principal objection I have is the feeling which this Bill may create in foreign countries. It is legislation such as this, and the attitude which has been taken up in this country on so many occasions, that has given rise to the opinion, still held in many parts of the Continent, that we are a nation of hypocrites. It is equivalent to saying that we do not consider the people abroad are as good as we are. By suggestions of that kind we are not furthering the cause that we have at heart, namely, making the relations between nations as amicable as they can possibly be made.


One of the most extraordinary reasons that I have ever heard given in this House for objecting to a Bill of this kind is that contained in the speech to which we have just listened, namely, that if we exercise our own ideas as to how we ought to protect our children, we may give some offence to foreign countries. The very first duty of the House and of every citizen inside it or outside it, is to protect our young citizens, no matter what foreign countries may think. I cannot imagine a more useful Bill than this. I have read the Debate in the House of Lords, and, in addition, I have myself—for so many years that I do not care to look back upon them—taken a very keen and lively interest in the protection of children in this country. This Bill I know, from my personal experience, is urgently needed for the protection of young children and especially of young girls. I hope the House will give it a Second Reading with as little further Debate as possible so that it may reach the Statute Book without delay, thus giving some further protection to these young people, as well as some further evidence of what is, happily, the fact in our country, namely, the rising standard of our citizenship.


I intervene only to say that I think the hon. and gallant Member for North-West Hull (Sir A. Lambert Ward) has misconceived the purpose of the Bill. That is shown by his suggestion that it "object should be effected in connection with our passport system. The object of the Bill is to ensure that when young persons enter upon a contract of service abroad, that contract shall be of such a nature as is suitable to their age and condition, and, further, that when it expires or otherwise comes to an end, there "shall be some clause in the contract ensuring their safe return to their native country. These purposes will commend themselves to Members in every part of the House and I hope that, on reflection, the hon. and gallant Member for North-West Hull will see reason to conclude that his fears are without foundation. This Bill will place a heavy responsibility upon the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street. I happen to have some knowledge of the heavy duties of that office, and of the succession of eminent gentlemen who have filled it I assume that the Home Office, or the responsible authority, will take care that in connection with applications which come before that court full particulars will be given of the contract so that the magistrate will be able to exercise judicial judgment upon it. If the magistrate assures himself that the conditions are suitable for the applicant, and that, in the event of the contract of service coming to an end, the safe return of the child is secured, he will perform a public service of which Members in all parts of the House will approve.


I do not wish to delay the passage of this Bill for one moment, but it is so seldom that I agree with anything which emanates from the party opposite, that I cannot refrain from indulging a cheerful sense of novelty by rising to express my sympathy with and approval of this Bill and my disagreement with my hon. and gal ant Friend the Member for North-West Hull (Sir A. Lambert Ward). One of my reasons is that the Bill did not originate with hon. Members opposite, but is largely the child of this party. However. I do not wish to go into that question at all, but merely to express my own feeling in regard to the Measure. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-West Hull uttered a word of caution on one aspect of the matter which we sometimes lose sight of in this House The liberty of the subject is beginning to be like the proverbial Scotsman's "saxpence." Every time we pass an Act of Parliament bang goes somebody's liberty. That is inevitable in legislation and no doubt that condition attaches to the passage of this Bill, but the other considerations involved, in my opinion so infinitely outweigh that consideration, that we are entirely justified in giving our whole hearted support to this Measure.

The Under-Secretary has said that the Bill commands general support in the country. It is one of the few Measures brought forward in this House since I have been here, in connection with which I have not been inundated with appeals from different individuals asking me to oppose it. Therefore it would appear that it has a general measure of support. We see so much to-day of legislation and of movements in favour of various kinds of protection for animals, and so many people seem to misdirect their sympathies from the young of the human race to the young of other races that it is satisfactory to welcome a Bill of this kind. Since so much has been done in connection with animals surely we must also recognise that we have a responsibility, above all others, in this House in our trusteeship of the young people of the country. We have been reading of late in the Press about the international drug traffic. Though not mentioned in the Bill there is no doubt that this Measure will hinder to some extent another international traffic to which one does not care to allude. Undoubtedly the suppression of that traffic will be helped by the Bill. Furthermore, we know of the experiences through which some of these young people pass who leave our shores and go abroad. They ought to receive whatever measure of protection we can give them here, and we ought to try to follow up that protection in every possible way when they go abroad. If we do not, we are guilty of a dereliction of our trusteeship in relation to these youngsters. There may be better ways of achieving this object and the Bill may be another infringement of the liberty of the subject, but I am quite satisfied that it has the hearty approval of the nation as a whole and can have nothing but beneficent results for the rising generation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed

to a Standing Committee.