HC Deb 22 July 1930 vol 241 cc1951-5

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Law relating to juvenile offenders. I am happy to say that this Bill is nonpartisan almost to the last word, and I feel sure that my appeal to the House to allow me to bring it in will not be in vain. It is fair, however, that I should put before the House the main provisions of the Measure. All the contents of the Bill are based largely on the recommendations of the Departmental Committee of the Home Office which reported on the subject in March, 1927. Members of the House, I am sure, will agree with me in one thing, namely, that this Bill is long overdue. The main provisions are these: It is proposed to alter the title and the character of our industrial and reformatory schools, and provide that they shall be very much more than hitherto training grounds and educational institutions for the young persons who are sent there. It is intended, too, that the selection of the particular school to which the offender is to be sent shall be left to the Court. The detention of the child in one of these schools shall be for a minimum period of six months and a maximum of three years. At the present time the minimum is three years and the maximum five. The Secretary of State will be entitled to frame the rules and to transfer children from one school to another in accordance with the bent, desire and moral training required of the child.

The Bill also provides for raising the age limit of offenders in juvenile Courts from 16 to 17 years—a very desirable proposition so I understand from those who are better qualified to speak on the subject than I am. It will abolish places of detention and substitute remand homes for these children. It will abolish also the registration of convictions in respect of offences committed by children. I ought to explain how very important it is that convictions for trivial offences by children should not be registered. I was a member of the Committee to which I have referred, and found to my astonishment that the registration of a conviction against a child follows him throughout life. In fact, if he tells the truth later on in his career he can neither join His Majesty's Navy, nor emigrate to the Dominions or any of our Colonies, even though the offence may have been the most trivial imaginable. Strangely enough, the same boy can however join the Army. I could never understand why there should be this difference.

The Bill does something else. It abolishes the death penalty up to the age of 18 years. That was a unanimous recommendation of the Committee. Above all things, I feel sure the House will agree with me when I suggest that the time has arrived for the whipping of children to stop. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] If the hon. Member will allow me, I will explain the reason. The Courts of this country themselves are gravitating towards the total abolition of whipping, as will be seen by the figures I will give. In 1917, there were nearly 5,000 orders for whipping of children. In 1927 the number had declined lo 230, showing that the justices themselves do not like the task of ordering whippings. Whipping a child by an order of the Court differs fundamentally from the same kind of treatment meted out by his parents or schoolmaster. To pay an official to whip a boy, in my view, not only degrades the child, but brutalises the man who does the whipping.

It may interest the House if I give another set of figures as to sending young persons to prisons in this country. The tendency of the time is definitely against sending any young person to prison at all if that can be avoided, as will be seen by the figures I am about to give. In 1921, there were 3,643 boys under the age of 21 sent to prison. In 1928, the figures had declined to 1,721. The numbers of girls for the same two years were 670 and 328, respectively. I ought to add another word on this issue. It is really a tragedy to find in the last report of the Prison Commissioners that in 1928, the last year for which figures are available, 247 boys and 11 girls under 18 years of age were sent to the prisons of our country. I feel sure that I can appeal to every hon. Member that it is better to do something to prevent these young people going to prison at all. We want, further, in this Bill to prevent the Press either publishing the name, address, photograph or the name of the school of any of these young persons who commit offences against the State.

We pass on to deal with probation. Probation has been a great success. In fact we want to extend it and make important changes in respect of it. One change that we want to make is this: We are very anxious that there should be no religious test when a probation officer is appointed in any part of the land. I think that a religious teat for this particular post is wrong in prin- ciple, and I trust that the House will allow that, at any rate, this proposal of mine is a very good one. We want also to make a provision whereby a children's court shall not be held in an ordinary Court of Law where adults are tried. We want to have the children tried in a Court limited entirely to children.

Then we want to secure that only courts of assizes and quarter sessions shall have power to commit to Borstal, and that pending sentence any child or young person under the age of 21 shall be detained at an observation centre. We want to establish these observation centres on the lines of what I saw myself in Belgium. The House will pardon me when I say, that I have always prided myself, and have told my friends in foreign countries that, on the whole, our laws in this country are far in advance of the laws of other countries. In this particular connection, however, we are in some respects very much behind other countries. We want to establish these observation centres, because it is found, in dealing with cases of young persons and children, that they do not always quite understand that they are committing offences against the law. They are totally incapable mentally of understanding what they are doing; in fact, a considerable number are mentally defective, and, consequently, we think that they ought to be sent to these observation centres to be treated physically and mentally.

There is one other provision, and it is a very important one. There are legal gentlemen who understand this problem very much better than I do, but I gather that it is of extreme importance that we should raise what I would call the age of criminal responsibility. The age, I am told, for centuries past in this country has been seven, and a little chap, as soon as he passes seven years of age, is supposed to understand all the dire consequences that will follow him under the English law if he commits an offence against the State. We want to raise the age, at any rate, by one year, and to say that the age of criminal responsibility shall be eight, and not seven. I have now put before the House what I believe are the main provisions of this Measure, and I venture to suggest that I have to-day advocated the cause of thousands of young people who are not able to speak for themselves. I have no hesitation, therefore, in believing that the House will willingly allow me to bring in this Bill.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Rhys Davies, Viscountess Astor, Mr. Foot, Mr. Ede, Sir John Withers, and Mr. Llewellyn-Jones.

  1. CHILDREN BILL, 30 words