HC Deb 07 May 1952 vol 500 cc512-20

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

10.10 p.m.

Squadron Leader A. E. Cooper (Ilford, South)

Once in a while the public conscience is shocked by some savagery perpetrated upon helpless children by parents or foster-parents. I should like to quote from an article which appeared in the "Daily Mirror," which is not a paper I am accustomed to reading in the ordinary way, but which on this subject appears to have something important to say. On 15th June, 1951, it said: Is there anything more pitiful than a child which is being badly treated? Is there anything which gives people more distress and makes them more indignant than a case of cruelty to children? We ask ourselves how it is possible for an adult to vent malice and spleen on innocence and helplessness, and put clouds of pain over little eyes which should be clear and happy? But it is possible. It is done. The courts this year have provided so many dreadful examples that the whole nation has been disturbed and upset. Sentences are sometimes held to be adequate by the general public and on some occasions the public takes a contrary view. However, before discussing penalties, I think we must try to find some of the causes of this unnatural and un-British conduct. There appear to be two or three main types of cruelty: neglect, either from ignorance or incompetence of parents, and in this case the lack of elementary knowledge is sometimes appalling and sometimes other interests—for example, drink and gambling are obvious distractions.

Some children are left alone for long hours. This is a serious cause of cruelty and its lasting effect upon the child is not always appreciated by callous or stupid parents. Finally, there is the parent who possesses no self-control and inflicts pain and suffering for no other reason than ignorance and low mentality or sheer delight. For some of these people education is the only remedy. I should like to quote a case to the Parliamentary Secretary.

An N.S.P.C.C. inspector found in one home that the bedroom of the parents was in a splendid condition but that the rest of the house was a reeking cesspool of filth. The lavatory was blocked and could not be used, and one of the children's bedrooms had been used in substitution. The inspector said it was difficult to describe the rooms. The ceilings in most of the rooms were black and covered with flies, the grate in the living room could hardly be seen for rubbish, and the table was piled high with filth, as if several pig bins from the street had been emptied on it. The father, however, averred that with his own hands he had cleared the table four months previously.

The inspector was able to discuss this matter amicably with the parents and was able, without a prosecution, to cause the family to mend their ways, and I am happy to tell the House that the conditions now obtaining in this home are such as we would like to see in many of our homes.

But the policy of educating these people is a long-term one, and it will be many years before we can hope to get any reward from that policy. However, in many cases of neglect it is claimed by the N.S.P.C.C. that bad housing is a prime cause, and I think we must pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government for the strenuous efforts which are being made to improve the housing conditions of the people of this country.

I do not wish to introduce a political or any jarring note into this short debate, but I should like to ask hon. Gentlemen opposite to try to use their influence with the editor of the "Daily Herald" to see that the new housing programme figures are given to the readers of the "Daily Herald." They were not given last week and it was the only newspaper in this country which did not publish the housing figures on Saturday. That is a very bad thing for the "Daily Herald." It may be that the imminence of the local government elections had something to do with it. However, it is a fact that if we can improve the housing conditions of our people and increase the number of houses available, and do that quickly, we shall go a long way to solving this very dreadful problem.

In some cases ordinary education is perhaps not the answer. Sometimes brutes are involved and the law must exact its full toll. On occasion there has been public disquiet at the degree of some of the penalties awarded, but it is unfair for the ordinary reader of a news- paper simply to read the Press reports of a case giving the bare facts and then to try to assess the degree of punishment which should be inflicted. The N.S.P.C.C. and those closely associated with this problem accept the fact that the law as it is at present is adequate for the purpose if it is properly applied.

Many of these offences are brought under certain Acts which do not permit the imposition of very serious penalties. I am sure that the whole House will be glad that the N.S.P.C.C. now intend to prosecute under the Offences Against the Person Act, which enables more severe penalties to be inflicted. Lord Goddard once said: If magistrates will make freer use of their powers and if prosecutors will consider putting forward different charges, more serious charges, more appropriate charges, when serious crimes are committed against children, a great deal of the agitation in the public mind upon this subject will be found to die down, and people will be satisfied. Public opinion must be roused to the importance of this issue and made to realise that so long as one case remains it is a blot upon our civilisation and we are not entitled to call ourselves a Christian people. The Press and radio do a great service in focusing this problem in the public mind. I hope that television with its great and growing influence will join in this battle to prevent needless and heartless suffering.

I beg our school teachers, who are already overburdened with extra duty, to play an even greater part in helping to solve this problem than they do at present. They see the children day by day and should be able to detect at once cases of neglect and cruelty. To stamp out this menace we must rely upon these matters being reported. Although we all try to avoid getting into other people's troubles, nevertheless in this we have a moral and social obligation. We must recognise also in our social life the importance of the Boy Scout movement. the Girl Guides and also the Salvation Army.

We all have a great part to play as individuals. We must help in every way possible to stamp out this menace which I am sorry to say appears to be growing. At the same time, we must give a great deal of credit to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which has done splendid work for many years, sometimes with very small funds and, in some areas, surrounded by hostile public opinion. I am sure that the general public recognise that this great body is not solely a prosecuting society but that it is one which aims, as its name says, at the prevention of cruelty.

I make no apology for raising this subject again. The public conscience must be awakened to the seriousness of this problem if it is to play its part and if we are to see a solution.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Somerville Hastings (Barking)

I am grateful to my political neighbour the hon. and gallant Member for Ilford, South (Squadron Leader Cooper), for reminding me that he proposed to raise this important subject today. I want to deal with one point only in the short time I propose to speak. The point which impressed itself upon me most of all, on learning of these unhappy cases, was the fact that the cruelty had not been the result of a single action, perhaps of a parent losing his temper, but had been going on for weeks or months. We read a little time ago of a case in which a child had been done to death. As was shown at the inquest, that case had been going on for many weeks, until the child was finally buried in a slag heap.

The result of cruelty means a scar on the mentality of the child, which lasts right through its life. We cannot suppose that these cases of persistent cruelty have gone unnoticed for long periods. The neighbours must have heard the child or seen it. What about the shopkeeper of the little shop round the corner, who knows everything? There is no doubt that these cases of cruelty are known.

Nor must we conclude that the people who know are callous. I am quite sure that they are not. The whole trouble, it seems to me, is that there is no one to whom suspected cases of cruelty can be reported. As the hon. and gallant Member for Ilford, South, said, in many cases the representative of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children does admirable work, as is well known, but in other cases the difficulty is for the authorities to get to know of these cases in time in order to take action so that irrevocable damage is not done.

I remember reading not very long ago of a very bad case. It affected those of us who were members of the London County Council very directly, and it concerned two little girls boarded out in the Putney area. They were very badly treated by the foster mother, and one of them was almost dying when the case came to light. The difficulty was that the good lady who recognised what was going on did not know where to report it until, in the end, she discovered where one of the children was at school and reported the matter to the school. At once the whole matter was known, the case was taken up, and one of the children, who was in bed, was taken to hospital at once. That child's life was saved with very great difficulty.

I feel strongly that in every area there should be some authority, well known to the people of the area. to whom cases can be reported. A few years ago a very valuable circular was issued by the Home Office stating clearly that, as a result of investigation, it was clear that there were sufficient powers to deal in any way necessary with all these cases of cruelty. It was suggested that in every area a co-ordinating officer should be appointed so that all the agencies could work together in all such cases. What that valuable circular did not say was to whom those cases were to be reported—and that is a matter to which I should like the representatives of the Home Office to give special attention.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

Both hon. Members who have spoken so far have performed the most valuable function in bringing this subject before the House tonight. That there is real public disquiet on the subject has been borne out by the large amount of correspondence which, like so many hon. Members, I have received recently. The ordinary constituents, who have no political interest but merely the interest of public-minded people, are writing incessantly to hon. Members, and their letters suggest two things: firstly, that the penalties are inadequate and, secondly, that magistrates do not always inflict the best penalty available.

All I would say is that I have always been a little disquieted by the suggestion that the Central Government should dictate to magistrates what penalties they should impose. I think a good service would be done if everyone knew that, by and large, the penalties are adequate and that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children can proceed in a more forcible way under other Acts. Again, magistrates can be made aware by correspondence in the local Press that the chief interest must not be the people who have offended but the welfare of children in general.

Finally, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has done a magnificent job. My own mother used to spend a lot of time on this work, and I remember seeing journals which showed that for every one case taken to court the Society often succeeded in settling the matter amicably and restoring a pleasant state of affairs in the home in a much greater number of cases, and these good people who write to us should, perhaps, bear that in mind.

10.26 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I am sure the whole House is grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Squadron Leader Cooper) for raising this matter this evening. As the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings) has said, it is a matter which can stand almost any amount of publicity. We want publicity in order to build up a real volume of abhorrence towards cruelty to children and also to spread a knowledge of the practical ways of checking, and, if possible, of preventing such cruelty.

Cruelty is perhaps a misnomer as applied to offences under Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act. For the purposes of that Act it includes welfare, assault, ill-treatment, neglect, exposure or abandonment. Of these, neglect is the commonest form of cruelty applied to children.

The House may wish to know that in each of the four years, from 1948 to 1951, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children investigated just about 40,000 cases of alleged cruelty. Of those cases, some 4,000 involved ill-treatment of some kind and led to 650 prosecutions by the N.S.P.C.C. In 1951, there were altogether 1,076 persons found guilty under Section 1 of the Act, of whom 30 were convicted on indictment.

That figure of about 1,000 cases of persons found guilty has been remarkably stable over a considerable number of years. It was slightly lower in 1950, when there were 974 persons found guilty. That is the latest year for which I can give the House some breakdown of the penalties inflicted, which I think will be of interest in view of what my hon. and gallant Friend said in opening the debate.

Of the cases coming before the magistrates' courts in 1950, 253 were fined, 230 were imprisoned up to three months, 140 were imprisoned for three months and up to six months, and 326 were otherwise dealt with, mainly by probation order. Of the cases in the higher courts-25 in that year—one ended in a fine; eight in imprisonment up to six months; four in imprisonment over six months and up to one year; three in imprisonment for over one year and up to two years; and nine were otherwise dealt with, no doubt mainly by probation order. In addition to those cases, of course there were no doubt a number of cases under the Offences Against the Person Act, but those figures are indistinguishable. I apologise to the House for giving these figures, but I think they are of some interest, and, as far as I know, they have not been given here, although they have been mentioned in another place.

Mr. George Porter (Leeds, Central)

May I ask the hon. Gentleman a question purely for information? Can he say how many of those cases were in duplicate?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I could not say offhand what the figures are, but I have no doubt that some of them were in duplicate, and, of course, a number of the offences involved more than one child. Forty thousand cases does not mean 40,000 children.

The causes of cruelty are, broadly, three-fold. First of all, there is ignorance; second, there is selfishness; and third, there is disturbance in family relations, generally arising out of divorce. Broadly speaking, I think I have put the causes in the order of importance, in the sense of the number of children affected by them. I have no statistics which I can give the House as to the division, but probably ignorance is easily the largest cause of cruelty. In cases where cruelty is inflicted by ignorance, we find that the people concerned are definitely of sub-normal intelligence.

In one sense of the word that may be a fortunate fact, because we are here up against a problem which, at any rate, is apparently soluble. In the case of selfishness, and in the case of the modern tendency to find disrupted families, we are up against a difficulty to which it is difficult to find a solution, but in the case of ignorance we can, at any rate, do something, and something which clearly can produce definite results.

The most practical type of remedy which is applicable is, perhaps, that to which my hon. Friend, I think it was, referred—the Salvation Army's Mayflower Home in Plymouth. That is an experiment—if that is not putting it too lightly—of great value. It was started in 1948 and has achieved encouraging results in training mothers found guilty of neglect, and placed on probation with the requirement to reside there four months. Children under five accompany their mothers. Training is simple and practical, including teaching in child care and household management, and the use to be made of welfare centres and clinics. If the husband is at home, the probation officer visits him to make suitable preparation for the return of his wife and children.

In Birmingham, the City Council have lately started a special training course in the women's prison for women convicted of neglect and sentenced to imprisonment for three months or longer. The course is intended to give the women a thorough grounding in elementary housewifery and mothercraft. Practical training during the day is combined with evening talks, the instructors being provided by the health, education, children's, and welfare department of the city. The Prison Commissioners also provide classes in home management in Holloway and Manchester Prisons. There are also homes where mothers may be sent on a medical recommendation, accompanied by their children up to the age of seven. They may stay there a temporary period. An example of that type is the Brentwood Recuperative Centre started by the Community Council of Lancashire.

In London, Liverpool, Manchester, Oldham, Sheffield and York, some of the families are helped by family service units. They operate from centres in which most of the staff reside and make a concentrated attack on the families' problems by frequent, sometimes daily, visits to help with the children, the supply of furniture and other necessities, and by constant persuasion and education.

These schemes—and there are others—are intended to prevent cruelty occurring, to stop it at the source, which is much the most desirable thing, if we can effect it. But, of course, so far we have not prevented cruelty and there are cases where prosecution is still essential. The Home Secretary has no duty to institute proceedings or to direct the police to institute proceedings. So far as the Home Office are aware, the powers of punishment existing are adequate for their purpose, and in the Home Office opinion they are adequately applied by the courts. The figures I quoted would give some general indication of that.

The Home Office, however, have powers and exercise them. The hon. Member for Barking has referred to a circular that was issued to local authorities with a view to the designation of co-ordinating officers. It was a joint circular from the Home Office, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Education. It was sent to all local authorities on 31st July, 1950, and advocated the fullest co-ordination of all local arrangements designed for this purpose. About 75 per cent. of local authorities have already taken steps to implement the circular, and the number is still steadily increasing.

The hon. Member for Barking said that the circular itself did not tell the public where they should report cases of cruelty if they occurred. The circular was sent to local authorities, and it was intended to guide local authorities and not to guide the public. I should have thought that most members of the public would realise that the proper person to tell, in the event of their suspecting cruelty to a child, is the nearest policeman, and I hope that this debate will bring to the attention of everyone that that is the right action to take.—

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 Twenty Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.