HL Deb 13 April 1885 vol 296 cc1439-42

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, that on two previous occasions their Lordships' House had passed a similar measure, though not without considerable discussion. The Government were anxious in a matter of this kind not to legislate in advance of public opinion, for nothing was so certain to do harm to the cause which the Bill was intended to promote as to aim at legislation which did not carry with it the cordial and hearty support of the outside public. If the Bill aimed at making that criminal which public opinion did not consider to be criminal—if it were to regard immorality as crime and treat it as such, it would at once raise enemies. Again, if it were oppressive in its mode of action, if it gave large inquisitorial powers to the police, or if it made the police censors of public morals, it would probably create a reaction in the public mind, and an opportunity would thus be lost of dealing effectively with the existing state of things in both Houses of Parliament. The Bill differed from its predecessors inasmuch as it did not go so far. The desire of the Government had been to lighten the measure by the excision of doubtful and debatable matter. For instance, the age to which protection was extended, and to which consent could not be pleaded in defence, was reduced from 16 to 15 years. The first four clauses were in exactly the same form as when the Bill of last year left this House. In Clauses 5 and 6 the age to which protection was extended was reduced by one year, and this change was made in the hope of securing unanimity in the passing of the Bill. He was aware that this change would be viewed with some disfavour by those who had given warm and hearty support to the Bills of former years. The Government had not made the change without considerable hesitation and reluctance; but they had done so in the belief that the change was a wise and prudent one, and one that should be adopted rather than run the risk of exciting hostile feeling by a too drastic and sweeping measure. He trusted, therefore, that their Lordships would allow the Bill to be read a second time.

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


said, he thought their Lordships had some cause to complain of the conduct of the Government in respect to this very extraordinary measure. This was the third year in which they had been called upon to pass the Bill, and during those three years no effort had been made to pass it through the other House of Parliament. Last year he expressed the opinion that the Government had no inten- tion of passing it into law, and the result justified his prediction. He still held the same opinion, because it was perfectly notorious that in the present state of Business in the other House there was not the smallest chance of the measure being carried into law this year. He could not help thinking that it was not consistent with the dignity of the House that Her Majesty's Government should make this House a kind of theatre to exhibit a solemn farce year after year. He quite agreed that, to a certain extent, the Bill showed a marked improvement upon the measure of last year. The clause giving powers for a search warrant to be issued in order that the police might discover whether certain persons' houses were being conducted in a disorderly manner had been omitted, and the public were no longer to be excluded from Courts of Justice where cases to which the Bill applied were being tried. This was a great improvement. With regard to the age of consent, he believed that any alteration of the existing law was quite uncalled for. The alteration was based on no principle whatever, and the clause was opposed to the judgment of the highest legal authorities. The present Lord Chief Justice, when he was Attorney General to Mr. Gladstone's Government, refused his assent to the proposal to raise the age of consent from 12 to 14, because the law of European nations fixed the age of consent at 12 for women, and 14 for men. The framers of the Bill evidently felt that it would open the door to wholesale extortion, and hence it was made a defence to a charge that the accused had reasonable ground to believe that a girl was over age. But how was it to be proved that he had such reasonable ground of belief? The danger to be guarded against was not so much that of wrongful conviction as that of unfounded charge, and the consciousness of this danger was manifest in a strange proviso, which assumed that a man might or might not be treated as guilty of an offence at the time of arrest by the police; and, with strange inconsistency, a police officer was named as the only person whose unsupported evidence should not secure a conviction. Both an offence and the attempt to commit it were visited with the same severe penalty. If we wished to clear the streets of mere girls, which was all we could hope to do, we could best do it by extending the operation of the Contagious Diseases Act, instead of illegally repealing it, for it was abundantly testified that, under the operation of the Act, girls of tender age had been prevented from following evil courses. When certain houses became a nuisance prosecution could be carried to conviction, and until they became a nuisance the wiser course was to ignore them. If by any miracle the Bill should pass this Session in its present form, it would create a maximum of danger with a minimum of safety.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday the 28th instant.