HL Deb 12 July 1853 vol 129 cc92-101

On the Order of the Day for the House to go into Committee on this Bill (on recommitment),


said, he had received a communication from his right hon. Friend at the head of the Poor Law Board (Mr. Baines), who had intimated to him that although he entirely concurred in the object contemplated by his noble Friend (the Earl of Shaftesbury), he was yet of opinion that there would be a very great, and in fact an insuperable, difficulty in carrying out that object by the means which the noble Earl suggested. That suggestion was, that children found in a state of vagrancy might be taken up, and placed in the workhouse. Now, that there should exist the means of taking these children from the streets, and placing them somewhere, so that they might be instructed in some useful employment, and have the benefit of something like education, was what nobody could dispute; but the Poor Law Commissioners felt there was an almost insuperable objection to placing young persons in the workhouse who were criminal, or quasi criminal. They were of opinion that it would render these establishments distasteful to the poor if the feeling once got abroad that persons were place there who were destitute and criminal. [The Earl of SHAFTESBURY: Not criminal.] The noble Earl said these children were not criminal; but they were so nearly criminal, that it would be difficult to give any definition of criminality which did not include them. Now, there had been a Committee of the House of Commons on the subject of criminal and destitute juveniles, which had made a report, now before the Poor Law Board, and under the consideration of the Government, in which they recommended, with a view to meet the very object of this Bill, that an establishment should be formed to which it would be impossible to object, and which, if adopted, would carry into execution the very desirable intentions proposed by this measure. That Committee reported to the House of Commons about a fortnight since, and they stated that it was their opinion that a great amount of juvenile destitution, ignorance, vagrancy, and crime, had long existed in this country, for which no adequate remedy had yet been provided. The Committee then referred to similar evils in some of the Continental States and in America; and went on to say that it appeared to them to be established by evidence that these evils might be prevented, and thousands of miserable human beings might be converted into industrious citizens, if due care were taken to rescue destitute children from the temptations and the demoralising influences to which they were subject. They gave it as their opinion that penal establishments ought to be instituted for the correction and reform of destitute and criminal children, who were convicted before a magistrate or a court of justice, and that such penal reforming establishments ought to be founded and supported entirely at the public cost, and to be under the care and descretion of the Government. That was a portion of the report. Now, without meaning to pledge himself or the Government that exactly the terms of these recommendations should be carried into effect, this he was quite willing to say—that the whole matter was before the Poor Law Board and the Government, and was being made the subject of full and anxious consideration. The Government felt that there could not be any object more important, or one more likely, if attained, to contribute to the social improvement and the happiness of the country, than that of arresting crime at its source, by putting children who were deserted by their parents in a condition in which they should be taught better, so that it should not become a matter of necessity to them to pass their lives as criminals. Having stated that it would be the object of the Government to accomplish this, he was bound to say that he did not think the Bill of the noble Earl could be made to work efficiently, so as to bring about the result aimed at. He had looked at it with the most anxious attention, but not hypercritically, and with the most earnest desire that, if possible, its provisions should be carried out; but he did not see how it could be made to answer the object which his noble Friend had in view. He did not now refer to the difficulty of defining the age within which a person should be considered a "child;" but the noble Earl provided that an order should be made, requiring "such parent or guardian or other person to pay" for the relief and maintenance of the child. Now, that seemed a very large phrase; and he would propose to amend it by the words, after "other person," to be inserted "liable, to contribute." To what extent was he to be made liable? If he refused, where was the child to be placed? He could not be sent to prison, and it was clear he could not be placed in the workhouse, and therefore he must be sent to some place which they had not at present in existence. He thought, therefore, that the object of the Bill, however laudable, was not to be carried out by the present machinery which they possessed, and thought the end in view must be postponed for the present.


said that the moment the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice signified their disapproval, he felt almost sure that the fate of the measure was decided. It did not however, at least so he thought, require a whole week to arrive at the final judgment. Seven minutes would have given the same conclusion as seven days. Important time had now been lost, which, at this period of the Session, he could not recover. He was ready to admit the proposed Amendments, and to take such definition of a child, whether it should be under thirteen or otherwise, as should be approved of by their Lordships; but all the former objections, stated in that House, were now set aside, and he was met by two from the Poor Law office—first, that the workhouse must not be made "houses of detention;" secondly, that there was not accommodation, either in quantity or quality, adequate to the expected pressure. The first was not a sound objection; the workhouses were at present houses of detention; no child, of tender years, admitted therein, was allowed to go out at its pleasure. He asked no more for the young mendicants and vagrants. The detention, too, such as it was, was against the claim of the abandoned parents to regain possession of the child for sinister purposes. To show they were houses of detention, he might adduce one proof. It was contained in a letter from the clerk to the guardians of the Yeovil Union, stating that the guardians had passed a resolution that in future, when the master should have reason to believe that notice given to him to quit the house was given merely for a temporary purpose, and with intention to return, he should refuse such notice till he had brought it before the board of guardians for their decision. The Commissioners directed the following communication to be addressed to the clerk in reference to such resolution:— The Commissioners desire to point out to the guardians, that, except in the case of orphan children, there is no power to detain a person in a workhouse against his will after he has given reasonable notice to the master of his intention to quit it. Let these children be placed on the footing of orphans. The second objection was even less sound. There would be little or no pressure on the houses; the terrors of the law would be nearly sufficient to clear the streets. But, to obviate the possibility of such a pressure, he proposed both to the Lord Chancellor and Mr. Baines to limit the operation of the Act to the metropolis. This would have removed all the provincial difficulties, and almost all those anticipated in London, for, had the pressure been severe, the Secretary of State could have directed the constables not to apprehend the children, and so we should have had a virtual suspension of the Act until the meeting of Parliament, when whatever was injurious might be altered or repealed. He could not see what possible objection could be urged to that proposition. He understood that the noble Lord had said the present inmates of workhouses would be disgusted if criminal children were introduced among them. They were not criminal children—they were children who were prevented from becoming criminal, and were placed in the workhouse in order that they might not become criminal. It seemed to him preposterous to say that the admission of children of six or seven years of age would be the cause of disgust to the inmates of workhouses. If they could but manage to reach those children, they would tear up the whole seedcrop of crime, and he thought that in ten months they would find a decrease in crime of 50 or 60 per cent among the criminal population. He greatly regretted the hostile view which some of their Lordships had taken of a measure which appeared to him to be calculated to effect the greatest good. But he was resolved not to withdraw the Bill. He was convinced of its necessity and its efficacy; and he would not by any act of his contribute to its defeat. He should, therefore, submit it to the adverse decree of their Lordships, under the advice and influence of the Poor Law Commissioners.


said, be felt very strongly the discouragement which must fall on the efforts of the noble Earl if this Bill were rejected, and was anxious that every support should be given to such laudable objects as those his noble Friend had in view. He was ready to admit there were difficulties in carrying the present Bill into effect as proposed in the first instance; but those difficulties passed away if the Bill was limited to the metropolis, and to the metropolis he thought it might be fairly extended; and if they found, which he agreed with his noble Friend in thinking would not be the case, that any inconvenience arose from overcrowding the workhouses, the Secretary of State could give directions to cease an increase of the number. He agreed with his noble Friend in thinking there would be no difficulty from that cause; and, with the limitation proposed, he would not object to their Lordships considering the Bill in Committee.


said, that so far from resisting the proposition of the noble Earl, he would do all in his power to assist his noble Friend in working the measure, and conceived there was an almost unanimous feeling in its favour. He wished to see these poor destitute children receiving a religious education, and becoming useful members of society. The poor child of six or seven years of age, who was employed by wicked parents, or by persons who engaged him to go out begging, was not to be considered as a criminal, and every person of right feeling should rejoice at seeing him rescued from the fate to which he was ex- posed. He felt that the objection with regard to the want of accommodation was a strong one, until the noble Earl proposed that the measure should be confined to the metropolis; for if it were extended to the whole country, there were workhouses that might be inundated, and discredit would be brought on those who supported the measure.


said, he highly approved of the measure, and quite concurred with the noble Earl that it was better to introduce the restriction to the metropolis than to lose the Bill altogether. At the same time he could not but express his regret that the efficiency of the measure should be crippled by such a restriction, for he knew that the grievance which it was intended to remove was not less felt in the country than in London. He could say with respect to the great town of Newcastle, that juvenile mendicancy in that town was an evil of such a frightful description that they were endeavouring to remedy it by private association. He trusted that Her Majesty's Government would reconsider this point, and consent to pass this Bill, with such other amendments as might be necessary, without depriving the large provincial towns of the great advantages that would result from the passing of it. It was contrary to all probability—he would almost say to all possibility—that any difficulty could arise from the adoption of his suggestion: but if any difficulty should arise, a remedy existed in the country as well as in London. His noble Friend had suggested that in London it was in the power of the Secretary of State, if a workhouse should become very full, to direct that the police constables should no longer arrest juvenile mendicants; and without the intervention of the Secretary of State, the local authorities in the counties were competent to take care of themselves, and if it was found that there was any difficulty about the workhouse accommodation, he could answer for the magistrates of his own county that they would exercise the permissive powers given by this Bill with so much discretion as to prevent difficulty arising from it. He must confess that he had heard with very sincere regret the report that had been read by his noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor from the Poor Law Commissioners. He thought that the report had taken a very imperfect, erroneous, and shortsighted view of the whole subject. In general, no man more admired the administration of the Poor Law Board than he did; but there never came a document from that Board that more lowered it in his opinion, than the document that had been read by the noble and learned Lord—


begged to explain that the document to which he had referred did not come from the Poor Law Commissioners.


was referring to the objections which his noble and learned Friend announced had been made by the Poor Law Commissioners to this Bill, and he held that those objections were perfectly groundless. He believed, whether it was mendicancy or crime that was committed by very young children, they ought not to be regarded as criminals at all. They were not the persons to blame, but their parents, who neglected them. When a child of that description was found begging or picking pockets, they should say that he was not a proper subject for punishment, because the misconduct of that child proved that he had been neglected by his natural guardians, and it was the duty of the State, under such circumstances, to come forward and do for that child what his parents had not done for him. They should treat him, not as a criminal, but as a destitute person; for destitute persons the workhouse was provided, and the workhouse, therefore, was the proper place to put him in, not for punishment, but because the workhouse, when the State acted as the guardians of such a child, was the only place to keep him in. According to the principle of the Act, it was not to be considered that they would be detaining the child in the workhouse in the sense of a penal detention; they were there assuming the guardianship of him, and placing him there for safety. He did not see why the Bill should not be now amended, and go through Committee that evening, because at that season of the year every day was of importance.


rose to express his most decided opinion in favour of the experiment that was about to be made by this Bill; but he must guard himself from being supposed to concur in the statement that had been made as to the entire conformity of this enactment with the existing poor-law regulations. He must say that he thought it was an innovation, and that there was a broad and marked distinction between what was authorised by this Bill, and what was asowed to be done under the existing poor-law. With respect to orphan children, how did they come into the workhouse? They were not taken by the constable; but he found by the first clause of this Bill that the children should be placed in the workhouse, and there detained, of course, only with the sanction of a magistrate; and he maintained, that under the present system, no child could be taken and put into the workhouse, and detained there against the will of the person who was responsible for it. With respect to an orphan child, if he had not arrived at an age at which he was responsible for himself, they must have the consent of the statutory guardian; but, with regard to other children, his impression was, that any master of a workhouse who pursued such a course, would do so on his own responsibility, because he had no right to detain such children. Although he did not exactly approve of the power given by this Bill, he entertained a still greater objection to the children being sent to houses of detention or prisons; and in point of fact he did not see any better mode of providing for these destitute children than by placing them in the workhouses, as he thought it would not be advisable to establish a wholly new class of institutions for the particular purposes of this measure, Under all the circumstances, therefore, he believed his noble Friend had proposed the best possible course. If the result of his measure, experimental as it was intended to be, should prove to be beneficial, it would be wise to extend its operation to the whole of the country, at the earliest possible opportunity.


hoped that the fact of the noble Earl at the head of the Government having acceded to the suggestion which had been made, for the purpose of seeing how the Bill would work, would not be supposed, either in the House or in the country, to imply that among the Members of Her Majesty's Government there was any objection to the principle of the Bill, or any shyness as to its application. He could not express too strongly his own deep conviction of the paramount importance of the principle of the Bill; and so far from wishing to see the area of its operation restricted, he begged to express his regret that the Bill was not made to apply to the whole of the kingdom of Scotland. The principle of the Bill had been brought into operation in some of the larger cities of Scotland—in Aberdeen for instance—and he could assure their Lordships that its effects on juvenile delinquency in those cities had been most important. Under Mr. Sheriff Watson, who sent all the little children who were brought before him to ragged schools and other similar institu- tions, there had been a decline in juvenile delinquency in the city of Aberdeen amounting almost to total extinction. When the principle was first applied, the percentage of juvenile delinquents was very high indeed, but by the last returns it was not more than 1 per cent. There was no wish whatever on the part of the Government of throwing cold water on the Bill; and, indeed, the only objections which had been taken to it were of a purely technical character.


said, the principle of the Bill was to treat the children virtually as orphans, as having parents who were worse than dead. He should be very glad, indeed, to see the Bill extended over the whole country, but accepted the present experiment of its application to the metropolis as better than nothing at all.


hoped the House would agree to the restricted operation of the measure, since, if successful, it could be made more general in the ensuing Session.


approved the principle of the Bill, but could not see why a clause should not be introduced, compelling the parents to pay for the support of their children during their retention in the workhouse.


was glad that the noble Earl had acceded to the proposed restriction of the Bill to the metropolis, and trusted that the experiment would be found to work so well as to call for further extension in a future Session.


, in support of the necessity for some measure of this kind, instanced a case which had come under his knowledge in his judicial capacity. A young girl, of eight years of age, was tried before him, charged with having passed bad money; and the evidence having established the case, as well as the fact that she had been trained by her parents to commit this crime, he was compelled, in order to save her from the influence of such parents, to pronounce a sentence of seven years' transportation upon her. Under that sentence she was taken into a Government penitentiary, provided with proper religious and moral instruction, and so removed from the pernicious influence of such degraded parents.


deprecated the idea that he was at all hostile to this Bill. Still, he was not yet convinced that if it were placed in operation throughout the country, the inmates of workhouses would treat it as a light thing that these children should be sent there. He thought it was a good suggestion that its operation should, in the first instance, be confined to the metropolis, and he hoped its success there would justify its subsequent extension to the whole country.


was rejoiced at the prospect of this most important Bill passing through Parliament during the present Session, and hoped that its eminent success in the metropolis would lead to its extension to the whole country in a future year. He hoped that the magistrates, whose duty it would be to administer this measure would take the greatest care with respect to the children they sent to the workhouses; and that they would not send there children of so advanced an age, and so tainted with crime, that it was impossible they should be regarded by the other inmates of these establishments, he would not say with favour, but at least with compassion rather than with aversion. The separation of children from parents, as proposed by this Bill, was no doubt an extremity to which resort should be had with the greatest reluctance, but it had really now become a social necessity that children should be removed from the influence which their profligate parents exercised over them for the worst purposes.

After a few words from Earl FITZWILLIAM,

House in Committee; Amendments made; the Report thereof to be received on Thursday next.

House adjourned to Thursday next.