HC Deb 08 February 1945 vol 407 cc2220-1
39. Mrs. Tate

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is aware of the inadequacy of the penalties able to be inflicted on persons who maltreat children entrusted to their care; and, in view of the indignation thus created whether he will consider revising the scale of penalties which it is possible to impose for various types of crime to bring them into line with modern social views and ethics.

Mr. H. Morrison

Under the existing law, a person convicted of ill-treating or neglecting a child is liable on summary conviction to six months' imprisonment or a fine of £25, or both, and on conviction on indictment to two years' imprisonment or a fine of £100, or both. Such complaints as reach me have been to the effect either that, where a mother's neglect is due to ignorance or lack of training, imprisonment is an inappropriate sentence, or that, in some particular case, the Court has not made full use of its existing powers and has imposed a sentence which is much below the maximum authorised by law. I can find no ground for any alteration of the existing law, which is contained in an Act passed by Parliament in 1933, but I fully share the feelings of indignation which any deliberate maltreatment of children naturally and properly excites, and if in any such case Magistrates fail to carry out their duty of imposing an appropriately deterrent sentence—while I have no power to intervene or to call them to book—I recognise that it is right that public attention should be called to the matter so that the magistrates may realise that their action is condemned by public opinion.

Mrs. Tate

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although the country has bees gravely shocked by the three cases brought to light recently, the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children tell me that they had over 1,000 cases last year, many of which it was impossible to get reported in the Press, owing to lack of space, and very many of which they consider were very inadequately dealt with; and will he, therefore, consider what steps should be taken to see that benches which do not deal adequately with these cases, should have this matter drawn to their attention?

Mr. Morrison

On the Press reports, and the representations of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Reakes), I asked that inquiries and a report should be made. I have not yet received it, and it would not be right for me to express an opinion upon the merits of the case, but I must warn the House that this issue has to be faced—whether the courts are to function as courts of law, independent of the Executive, or whether the House wishes to get into a position in which the Home Secretary gives instructions to the courts.

Mr. A. Bevan

Would it not be extremely improper for the mind of the bench having to try one of these cases in the immediate future to be inflamed into indiscretions, abuses and excesses by the clamour of popular feeling?

Mr. Morrison

I think there is point in what my hon. Friend says. The courts must be judicial and find the proper penalty, and any undue tendency towards hysteria in this matter is to be deplored.

Mr. Benson

Will the Minister realise that heavy sentences are an entirely inadequate substitute for proper inspection?

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

Is it not a pity that attention should be diverted by particularly hard cases, when the real problem is the way in which orphan children, or those who are under guardianship, are being dealt with?

Mr. Morrison

I think I told my hon. Friend last week that that is why the Minister of Education, the Minister of Health and myself had asked the Government to institute an inquiry.