HC Deb 19 November 1951 vol 494 cc179-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Brigadier Mackeson.]

11.0 p.m.

Mr. John Hay (Henley)

Tonight, I want to draw the attention of the House to the number of cases of cruelty to young children, and may I say at once that the term "cruelty" by statute, under Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, includes also those cases of neglect of a child which leads to its being caused unnecessary suffering or injury to its health.

I think I ought to declare a small personal interest in this matter, because I am and have been for some time a solicitor prosecuting locally on behalf of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. If that be an interest, I declare it at once. I am extremely glad indeed that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has been able to come to the House tonight to deal with the subject which I wish to raise.

I think this gives my right hon. and learned Friend, shortly after his accession to office, a good opportunity of stating his views upon this very important topic which has aroused public opinion very considerably over the course of the last few months. It is very true indeed that this House is not just a machine for turning out Acts of Parliament. It is a great sounding board for public opinion. Through the medium of Members of this House public opinion has a voice, and I think that today public opinion upon this topic of cruelty to young children is becoming increasingly alarmed.

It would be extremely easy for me to try to inflame the passions of hon. Members by a long recital of particular instances of brutality in individual cases. Because I do not do so tonight does not mean that I am not just as deeply concerned and shocked as other people are about this subject. I am just as sickened and appalled as anyone else when I read these appalling cases in the newspapers. But I think this is a subject which should be considered in as calm and as dispassionate a manner as possible because our purpose must be the diminution of this particular crime and its eventual eradication, and I think it is necessary that we should consider the matter in an atmosphere as free from prejudice as we can so that we can arrive at a balanced view.

First of all, I should like to ask my right hon. and learned Friend a question. Has he any evidence or information to give us as to whether or not this particular crime of cruelty and neglect of children is on the increase or not? I have obtained certain figures from the Society which I have just mentioned. They show that during the period between March and September of this year no fewer than 17,071 cases involving ill-treatment, cruelty or hardship to young children have been brought before them. That compares with a figure of 17,091 last year and 17,051 in 1949. It may be said that there appears to be a slight reduction over the course of the last two years, but, nevertheless, this is a dreadful total —17,000 cases a year. It is far too many. What we must try to do is to see if there is action which the Government or Parliament or public opinion can take to bring that total down.

I think also I ought to give particulars of the number of prosecutions brought by the Society. In 1949 they found it necessary to bring 312 prosecutions for this offence. In 1950 the number of prosecutions had increased to 350; in 1951 the number so far has been 396, and let me remind the House that a prosecution by that Society is always the last resort. They endeavour by their investigations and by helping the parents and the children concerned to avoid the necessity for a prosecution, but if a prosecution becomes necessary they do not hesitate to take it.

I should also point out that my right hon. and learned Friend will have far more detailed and accurate figures upon this matter than I have or than the Society has, but I do suggest that the figures which I have given indicate that there is a great deal of this crime going on which we ought to try and do something about. In addition to this public disquiet about this particular offence, there is a constantly growing tide of public uneasiness about the sentences which are imposed by benches of magistrates.

I am going to generalise and say that frequently one reads of cases where the sentences imposed seem absurdly light for the gravity of the offences disclosed. I want to refer only to one case; that of a woman of Ipswich who has been convicted once already for ill-treating her child and who was bound over. Recently, she was charged again with ill-treatment of her child. She had punched the child until the blood flowed, twisted her fingers, seized her by the throat, and pulled her hair. She then knocked down the child and kicked her in the stomach. A magistrate said: The harsh treatment and constant blows were likely to cause the child unnecessary suffering or injury. What does the House think the magistrates did? They fined that woman £10. That is the sort of thing we ought to worry about, because it is a very serious matter. Quite often, a fine of that sort is completely useless. A fine often has not the slightest effect upon a person who is so obviously a brute that something more remedial in its lasting effect is necessary.

Magistrates have adequate powers. They can send a person to prison for, six months and impose a fine up to £25, or they can commit such a person, once found guilty, to quarter sessions for sentence. Quarter sessions can send a person to prison for two years and can fine him or her up to £100 for this very offence. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary suggested, in answer to a Written Question put to him on 15th November, that the prosecuting authority should ask for committal more often than it did. He also suggested that the prosecuting authority might use more frequently the procedure under the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861. I am certain his observations would be noted in the quarters where prosecutions commence.

I do ask him whether he, or possibly the Lord Chancellor, would send a circular to benches of magistrates, reminding them of their powers in this particular connection, reminding them that they can punish to the extent I have described or commit for trial, and also reminding them of the great public concern which exists on this matter.

I do not suggest that my right hon. and learned Friend should send a directive of any sort to magistrates because obviously anything which would give the appearance of interference with the powers of the justices should be avoided. But, I say that it is within his administrative powers to notify justices of the grave view that the public is taking of this matter and reminding them also of the quite strong powers which they have to deal with offences when they are proved.

I suggest that a hint from my right hon. and learned Friend, that a case where guilt is proved demands a punishment which is proportionate to this horrid crime, would have a very great effect. I also suggest he might find it useful to take up this matter with the Magistrates' Association and draw their attention to the point. I cannot, on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House, put forward a suggestion which, in other circumstances, I might be able to do. That is, to suggest the punishment could be increased. Such action as I have mentioned would help and, if it is not shown that it does help, then we may have to consider other steps, which I must not now, by the Rules of Order, mention.

The local authorities have powers to supervise homes from which children are taken when this particular offence has been committed. Is my right hon. and learned Friend satisfied that these powers are adequate to the need? How is the procedure, which was laid down under the Children Act, working out in practice? I am certain the House would give him more powers to deal with this subject under that Act of Parliament if he wanted them. The main burden of dealing with this dreadful business rests on the shoulders of a voluntary society—the N.S.P.C.C. which is incorporated by Royal Charter, and thereby allowed to bring prosecutions.

I suggest that a great deal of public help is needed for that organisation because of the work it does. I cannot suggest tonight any grant from public funds to that society, but I do suggest a great deal of help can be given in other ways by the Government, and especially by the public itself, which can assist in reporting cases where it is thought that children are in need of care and protection. From the purely practical angle the public can also help by being far more willing to come forward and give evidence. Frequently, people do not want to go anywhere near a magistrates' court, or fear the risk of the man or woman next door having it in for them.

I believe that this is a thing which we should regard as a blot upon civilised society; 17,000 cases of this sort is more than we can allow to continue. I am not making an impassioned appeal to the Home Secretary, but I urge him to look at this matter sympathetically, and say that he is prepared to show that this Government, just as the last, is concerned about this problem, and wants to do all it can to see the law is enforced and this dreadful thing stamped out.

11.11 p.m.

Viscountess Davidson (Hemel Hempstead)

There is no doubt that the increasing number of cases of cruelty to children is giving rise to very great anxiety, and the fact that more publicity is being given is also producing a greater awareness among the public. The reason why there should be this increase in appalling cases, such as we have heard tonight, may be due, to some extent, to the lack of appreciation of the responsibilities of parenthood, which should be taught by parents to their own children, the sapping of religious and moral training, and the lack of unselfish love which all right-minded parents must have.

The Home Secretary is aware that I asked him in the last Parliament whether there was any action we could take in this matter, and he very much hoped that he might be able to give the House and the public some advice and guidance tonight. I realise that my right hon. and learned Friend has a great deal to say in the very short time allowed on the Adjournment, and therefore I am not going to attempt to say anything more, except that we shall appreciate very much indeed any advice he can give.

11.12 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir David Maxwell Fyfe)

I welcome the discussion of this problem because it is a problem that disturbs all right-thinking people and calls for constant vigilance on the part of all who have responsibility for the welfare of children. I should like to say how much I admired the cogency coupled with restraint, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) opened this matter to the House and to express my gratitude to the noble Lady for giving me some extra time.

The first point I want to consider is the extent of the problem, and I also want to answer the first of the questions which the hon. Gentleman put to me. The number of convictions for ill-treatment or neglect under the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 during the first six months of 1951 was 531. The figure for the first six months of last year was 524. Let me say at once that these figures leave no room for complacency. One thousand cases a year are 1,000 cases too many.

But it must be recognised that there is no evidence of an increase in the number of cases of cruelty to children. The average number of convictions over the last four years was 991, and that is not much higher than the number in 1938, which was 944. In 1920 for similar offences, under an earlier Act, the figure was 1,533, and in 1900 it was 3,226. It must be remembered that many of the convictions are for neglect as distinct from cruelty. Fortunately, those which involve the deliberate infliction of pain are few. It must also be remembered that some of the graver offences are dealt with under the Offences Against the Person Act, under which penalties range up to imprisonment for life. Figures of the number of children who were the victims of such offences are not available. The figures are not split up in that way; but the number cannot be large.

May I remind the House, as my hon. Friend has done, about the penalties? Under the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933, upon indictment a person convicted may be fined £100 or imprisoned for two years or suffer both penalties. Upon summary conviction, the figures are £25, six months' imprisonment, or both. As I have already stated, under the Offences against the Person Act the penalties range up to imprisonment for life.

Penalties actually imposed in 1950 were; in the magistrates' courts under the 1933 Act, 253 people fined, 230 imprisoned up to three months, 140 imprisoned for between three and six months, and 326 dealt with otherwise, mainly by probation orders. That makes a total of 949. In the higher courts one person was fined, eight were imprisoned for up to six months, four were imprisoned for between six months and one year, and three were imprisoned for between one and three years. That makes a total of 16. Nine persons were otherwise dealt with.

Let me now deal with the suggestion that circulars should be sent to the magistrates. I try to be frank with the House, and I must say that in my view it would be improper for the Executive to suggest to the judiciary that a particular class of offence which arouses general abhorrence should be visited with particular penalties. I may say that this is not the only class of offence upon which I, and my predecessor, have been asked to take this course. But it is the duty of the courts to consider each case upon its merits.

This involves considering the nature of the offences and the character and circumstances of the offenders. Without for a moment criticising the Press, may I remind the House that in these days when the size of newspapers is small, the circum- stances of the offenders are not always reported in detail. It is not quite fair to magistrates to suppose that considerations that spring to the mind of readers of such reports have altogether escaped them, or may not have been outweighed by others which were not reported. One must remember the other side of the matter, that of the family still left—the children who may not have been ill-treated and the effect that there may be, even after a case of cruelty, of splitting up the family at that time.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has discussed this matter with the Society which does such excellent work which he mentioned, and he will know how prominently it is in their minds. With regard to the suggestion, which I will deal with more fully in a moment, about a case being sent for trial to a superior court, I would remind my hon. Friend of a fact he knows well that those in charge of the prosecution can ask for the case to be committed for trial and dealt with by a judge and jury, and that is one of the responsibilities that the prosecutor has to consider.

For a moment I would like to deal with the psychological aspect of the matter and consider the causes of these offences, because there are various types of offenders. One, of course, is the problem family, the subnormal and the socially incompetent. That is one class. Another class consists of the selfish parents unwilling to forgo their own pleasures to look after their children. One has also the unskilled or unstable parents with no resources against the misbehaviour of difficult children except violence. It is probably from the last class that serious cases of brutality arise. It is only in a small proportion of cases that there is deliberate intention to inflict pain for the sake of inflicting it.

With regard to that small class of case, I want to emphasize a suggestion I have already made, but before I deal with it I want to say a word about preventive measures, because as the noble Lady said this is a most important aspect of the matter. I believe that local statutory and voluntary bodies can, and do, help those in the various classes I have mentioned who are willing to be helped.

I would remind the House that a joint circular was sent to local authorities by the Home Office, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health on 31st July, 1950. It advocated full co-ordination of local arrangements and the designation of an officer to secure this. I am glad to say that most authorities have designated an officer. As my hon. Friend implied from the figures he quoted, when these are compared with those I quoted, the N.S.P.C.C. does most useful preventive and advisory work, as well as prosecuting in certain cases where necessary.

I remind the House that I as Home Secretary have no power to prosecute. Indeed, it will be appreciated from a most important constitutional principle that I have not the power to direct the institution of proceedings. Although I am the police authority for the Metropolitan Police it is no part of the duties of the police authority to direct the institution of proceedings. That is a matter for the police, or the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the Attorney-General.

But the Society does help in these matters and, although there is no power to pay an Exchequer grant, local authorities can, and a number do, make contributions to it. In addition, the Salvation Army's Mayflower Home at Plymouth has achieved encouraging results on a small scale in training mothers who have been found to have been guilty of neglect in this way.

The basic problem, as I see it, is to prevent a family falling, for whatever reason, into a state so bad that the children are neglected or ill-treated. I shall do everything in my power to encourage the preventive work of the agencies I have mentioned. My inspectors already work in close touch with the local authorities and with the Society. I put that first because I still believe—and I am sure the House is with me—that prevention is the first consideration.

Where prevention fails I do not think there is a case for increasing the maximum penalties, but I think there is a need to ensure that consideration is given to the method of prosecution, having regard to the gravity of the case. I intend to discuss with the police and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children their need as prosecutors to consider in every case where injuries are deliberately inflicted whether there is what the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Vaughan-Morgan), the last time this subject was discussed on the Adjournment called "cool, calculated cruelty" to children.

The first question is whether the charges should be brought under the Offences Against the Person Act, which provides heavier penalties. We must consider whether it is such a case that it should be brought under the Act which makes the offence more serious and the penalties heavier.

The second point to be considered in all cases is whether the circumstances are such that instead of applying to the magistrates for summary trial, the justices should be invited to consider committing for trial in the higher court. As I have explained, in the higher court the penalties are two years' imprisonment or £100 fine or both. I do not think anyone could argue that that does not provide a reserve of penalty to deal with these offences, especially if consideration is given to the point that the really bad case of deliberate cruelty should be dealt with under another Act.

I assure the House I am not going to rest on this problem and, by the discussions that I have, I shall see that those whose duty it is to investigate do investigate it with due regard to its seriousness. I hope that these few words have shown that I consider it serious.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Eleven o'Clock.