HL Deb 04 July 1871 vol 207 cc1082-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, that this Bill was "an old friend under a new name;" for, in fact, instead of simply amending the Habitual Criminals Act, it had been thought better to re-enact almost all its provisions, remedying any defects in it, and making several changes recommended by experience. As the remarks of the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Carnarvon) on a previous occasion might have produced an impression that the Act had been nearly inoperative, he felt bound to show that, in spite of verbal and other inaccuracies, it had effected a great amount of good. A register had been carefully kept at the central office in Whitehall of criminals convicted summarily or on indictment of any offence mentioned in the schedule; every convicted criminal was photographed, and copies of the photographs sent up to the central office, and thence distributed over the country. The numbers were certainly appalling. Between the 11th of December, 1869, when registration commenced, and the 31st of December, 1870, no less than 35,633 persons were registered. As to supervision, between the 11th of December, 1869, and the 15th of June, 1871, 2,080 prisoners had been released and were under supervision, while many sentences passed on persons who would hereafter be subject to supervision were, of course, still unexpired. As to those who were convicted, and who would at the expiration of their sentence be subject to police supervision, the numbers amounted to 3,511 last year. The clauses of the Habitual Criminals Act with reference to houses that harboured thieves had proved extremely beneficial. In 1869 the number of such houses was 1,962, and in the following year it was reduced to 1,753. The publichouses of bad character in 1870 were 21 per cent less than in 1869, and the beerhouses of bad character were in 1870 51 per cent less than in 1869. These results were attributable to the joint operation of the Habitual Criminals Act and the Beerhouses Act of 1869. In the year before the Habitual Criminals Act was passed the number of persons who received stolen goods was 1,037, in the year after it came into operation the number was reduced to 960. Taking an average of five years before 1869 he found that in 1870 there was a decrease of 55 per cent in that class. He trusted that these figures to a certain extent proved that the Habitual Criminals Act had been really beneficial to the country, and that the provisions which it contained had been honestly and successfully carried out. But it might be asked why if the Act had been so successful should they be now asked to amend it? The fact was that owing to the Amendments which had been inserted in that measure during its progress through the Legislature many inaccuracies crept into it, which rendered it extremely difficult to work some clauses, and impossible to carry others into effect. It was with the view of remedying these defects that this Bill was introduced. The Returns of the Inspectors of Prisons showed that in 1843, when the population of England was 16,300,000, the criminals sentenced to penal servitude or transportation amounted to 4,488; that in 1852, when the population was 18,000,000, those so sentenced were 2,896; whereas in 1869, when transportation was at an end, and when the population was 22,000,000, the criminals sentenced to penal servitude amounted to 2,006 only. That certainly must be re-assuring to those who had an idea that crime was increasing in this country. He believed that the facilities for the detection of crime, increased education, and the charitable institutions in which the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Shaftesbury) took so much interest had, to an immense extent, repressed crime in this country. The main alteration in the provisions of the first part of the Bill had reference to holders of licenses. One of them would oblige the holders of tickets-of-leave or convicts who had been released on license to report themselves monthly to the police, and also to report their changes of residence. The subject of this monthly reporting had been most carefully considered; evidence had been taken from all those who were capable of giving the most valuable evidence on the subject, including several agents of Prisoners' Aid Societies (13 out of 16 of whom were in favour of the change), and the result was that the Government had determined to insert in this Bill a clause for the revival of this monthly reporting. It was objected that a person who employed a released convict would find out that he was known to the police if he had to report himself monthly to the police, and the result would be the discharge of the released convict from employment. But the opinion of persons competent to pronounce an opinion on that subject was almost unanimously on the opposite side of the question. He had the opinion of a police officer of experience in favour of criminals being compelled to report themselves to the police once a month, and to give information when they changed their residence. Not only would these provisions enable the police to keep a more efficient supervision over the criminal class, but from the very fact of the report being made once a month a very slight investigation would be sufficient to show to the police whether the convict was getting his living honestly or not. Moreover, it was intended that the report might, according to the direction of the chief officer of police of the district, be made either personally or by letter, and to the chief officer himself or to any person whom he might name—thus avoiding any personal interference with those whom the police knew to be obtaining their living honestly. He could not pass from this part of the subject without paying a well deserved tribute of praise to the various Prisoners' Aid Societies, which were doing a large amount of good. Thus out of 800 male prisoners discharged in the past year 312 were assisted by these societies, of which there were 38 altogether actively engaged; and out of 250 female prisoners discharged during the same period 191 were assisted by them. It was only due to these truly charitable associations that the good work they were doing should be made known to the public at large. The other provisions of the Bill might be disposed of in a few words. It was provided that a register of all persons convicted of crime in England and Ireland should be kept in London and Dublin under the management of the respective Chief Commissioners of Police; that Returns should be made by every Governor of a gaol of the persons convicted of crime who should come into his custody, and by every chief officer of police of the persons convicted of crime within his district; that all prisoners convicted of crime confined in any prison in England and Ireland should be photographed, under proper regulations as to dress, &c. This process of photographing prisoners had proved very useful for the prevention and detection of crime. At present it was not done in all gaols: this Bill would make the practice uniform, and would regulate the distribution of the portraits. Another important provision of the Bill was this—any person who had been twice convicted of crime on indictment was declared guilty of an offence against this Act and made liable to a year's imprisonment, with or without hard labour, who should within seven years of the expiring of his last sentence be convicted before a court of summary jurisdiction of certain offences named in the section—such as that he was getting his livelihood by dishonest means, giving a false name and address—being found in any place under circumstances to justify the suspicion that he was about to commit an offence, or being found in any dwelling-house or premises under circumstances to justify suspicion. By another clause any persons who should be twice convicted might, in addition to any other penalty, be placed under the supervision of the police for seven years, or any shorter period, during which he would be under precisely the same regulations as persons at large on license. The Bill also provided penalties for harbouring thieves, for assaults on the police. By another the children of convict women, being under 14 years of age were placed under the provisions of the Industrial Schools Act. On almost all other points the Bill was a mere transcript of the existing Act, with the exception of certain matters of procedure. He proposed that their Lordships should go into the Bill pro formâ on Thursday next in order that it might be printed as amended, and then that some future day should be fixed for considering it in Committee.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Morley.)


said, he regarded the Bill as one of considerable importance, and he was glad to be able to offer his congratulations to the noble Earl opposite on his having at length introduced such a measure:—although it was to be regretted that it had not been introduced at an earlier period of the Session, when there might have been a greater chance of its passing through the other House of Parliament before the end of the Session. He had also to make his acknowledgments to the noble Earl for the handsome manner in which he had recognized the fact that the Amendments upon the Habitual Criminals Act contained in this Bill, which he had brought before Her Majesty's Government, had been at last accepted by them. He was afraid, however, that he could scarcely join in the praise the noble Earl had bestowed upon the working of the Habitual Criminals Act. The noble Earl had quoted statistics to show that a number of publichouses frequented by thieves had been shut up, and that the number of receivers of stolen goods had diminished; but he had failed to show any connection between these results and the operation of the Habitual Criminals Act—upon which point he himself entertained some doubt, inasmuch as the noble Earl himself had acknowledged earlier in the Session that parts of that measure were unworkable;—the Judges having declared certain of its clauses inoperative, and because the system of supervision which really formed the essence of the Act could not be carried out. He approved the restoration of the clause requiring monthly reports, and he did not condemn the division of criminals into two classes for the purpose of supervision. By requiring the discharged prisoners to make these periodical reports the system of supervision would be changed from being a sham into a reality. On a former occasion he had urged that power should be taken by the Secretary of State to intrust the registration of discharged criminals, not only to the Chief Commissioner of Police, but to any other person whom he might select, and that there should be an officer specially told off for that particular purpose. That suggestion was not attended to at the time; but he now saw that a clause of the Bill would enable any person appointed by the Chief Commissioner of Police to take the register. Hitherto we had allowed the valuable services of the Prisoners' Aid Societies and of the clergyman of the parish to remain unused, and he thought the present provision would be found very valuable in many cases. He also approved the provisions as to registration; but he must remind them that it was not enough to establish a registration of that kind unless the Government saw that it was worked satisfactorily, and the responsibility would rest on them to make it such as it should be. Some parts of that measure would require consideration when they got into Committee; but he hailed the Bill, as a whole, with extreme satisfaction, and trusted that it would not be allowed to miscarry through having been introduced so late in the Session.


said, that so far from thinking that the Habitual Criminals Act had been a success, he had come to the conclusion that it; had rather proved a failure; and that it was not by extending its principle or by making its provisions more severe that they could hope to arrive at a satisfactory result. It had been supposed that by the operation of that measure they were to get hold of all the habitual criminals of the country, and to concentrate them into a condensed criminal class whom they could effectually control and restrain; but he believed that, although there never was a time when the police were more energetic or more admirably organized than at present, still there never was a time when our habitual criminals seemed to be more difficult to catch, or their operations to be more completely shrouded in mystery. It might have been thought that under the provisions of the Habitual Criminals Act such robberies as those recently committed at the house of Mr. Wentworth Beaumont and other places would have been prevented; but, so far from that measure enabling them to apprehend such very ingenious criminals, he believed there was hardly a single instance in which they had been found out. He feared that by concentrating their habitual criminals into a seething mass, and allowing them no means of mixing themselves up with the honest population, they had rendered the criminal class more powerful for evil than they were before. It was now proposed to require everyone of those persons who held a license under the Penal Servitude Acts to report himself to the police 84 times before he was allowed to return to the normal condition of society. He should move the rejection of that provision in Committee, believing it to involve an infringement of the liberty of the subject, and that it would render it impossible for a criminal to return to an honest course of life. He approved of those parts of the Bill which were intended to make the agency of the police more effective. He should have liked to see the penalties for assaults on the police made much more heavy. The police were at present placed in a most difficult and painful position. They were liable to be attacked under circumstances of great brutality, and no adequate provision existed for their proper protection. Yet even under this Bill a young man of fortune might knock down and ill-use a policeman and get off by paying a fine of £20. He thought the fine inflicted in such cases should be heavier, and the period of imprisonment increased. He regretted, however, that he could not agree with his noble Friend on the principle of the Bill, for he was of opinion that considering the increase of population in this country there had been no correlative increase of crime.


confessed himself exceedingly puzzled as to which of the two opposite theories broached by the two noble Lords who had spoken last in regard to the Habitual Criminals Act was the true one—namely, the theory that the Act had been entirely inoperative, or the theory that it had been so frightfully operative that it had concentrated the whole criminal population of the country into one seething mass. His noble Friend behind him (Lord Houghton) had another objoetion—he said the Bill would infringe the liberty of the subject. But surely to confound the liberty of the criminal with the liberty of the subject was a very extraordinary argument. Surely the Legislature was not required to treat the criminal and the law-abiding subject alike, and it could not be maintained that regulations for controlling the criminal population should not be made for fear of interfering with the liberty of the subject?


said, he objected to the supervision after the expiring of the sentence.


said, the supervision was part of the sentence. The Act, no doubt, had not been as successful as it might have been if there had not been some mistakes in it which prevented it from working as well as it might otherwise have done. He did not, on the other hand, admit that it had no effect at all; nothing was more difficult than to trace the operation of a law upon particular classes of people, and it did not follow because there had been some remarkable robberies in London that the police were inefficient. Their Lordships must bear in mind that the circumstances of the country were different with regard to criminals from what they formerly were when criminals were sent beyond the sea. Now, a large number of them were sentenced to remain in the country, and were afterwards released in it. The existence of this criminal class was a new fact arising within these few years; and new evils had to be met by new remedies. The Bill was distinct and intelligible, and he trusted it would meet with the approbation of the House.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Thursday next.