HL Deb 23 July 1875 vol 225 cc1871-2

, on rising to move an Address for Papers relative to the operation of the Agricultural Children Act, said, that that statute was passed in 1873, its object being as stated to regulate the employment of children in agriculture. At the commencement of the present year the Act came nominally into operation: since that time, however, it appeared to have become almost inoperative, partly from the want of machinery to put it in force, and partly from the fact that there was no very general feeling in the country that such an Act was required. Agricultural schools were everywhere increasing in number and efficiency, and it was becoming the exception in agricultural districts to find a child who was not receiving a fair amount of elementary instruction. That would, perhaps, in some measure explain why the Act had hitherto been almost a dead letter. But there was, he believed, another reason. A strong feeling existed against legislative interference to such an extent as was authorized by this Act with the private and domestic arrangements of families—especially when it was applied to a single class. It was the agricultural labourer only who was subjected to the penalties of the Act; while another class—the small occupiers of land, who were not much removed from the labouring class, might employ their own children of any age in the cultivation of their own land without incurring the penalties of the Act. It had recently been stated, by one of the London journals, that Justices of Quarter Sessions, acting in accordance with instructions from Her Majesty's Government, had directed the police to enforce the provisions of that Act. Now, if that were the course which Her Majesty's Government proposed to sanction with regard to the enforcing of that Act, it was open to very grave objections. The penalties of the Act were aimed at one class only; but he much doubted whether their Lordships would be prepared to say that a police constable should have the power of entering the house of anyone to ascertain how his children were being educated for the purpose of bringing him, if necessary, before a Bench of Magistrates. It was a power which was not granted to the police except in the case of suspected criminals, and he could not see why the agricultural labourer should be made an exception to other classes and subjected to this interference with the privacy of his family. If the Act was to be enforced—which he could not but regard as objectionable in principle, and inconvenient in practice as interfering with agricultural labour—it should be done, he ventured to suggest, in some other way than through the county police; and he trusted that Her Majesty's Government would give some assurance that would allay the apprehensions which were felt with regard to the future operation of this Act. Moved, "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for, Copy of Correspondence between the Home Office and Justices of Quarter Sessions relative to the operation of the Agricultural Children Act; also for copies of Instructions issued to the Police of different counties with regard to enforcing the said Act.

Address agreed to.