HL Deb 16 July 1889 vol 338 cc502-14

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill, and I hope your Lordships will accord it this favour. I do not suppose that at this late period of the Session the Bill is likely to pass into law; but I do hope it may go into Committee, so that I may have for the measure the advantage of the advice and criticism which may be afforded in the form of Amendments upon its provisions. The object of the Bill is to prevent parents or other guardians from recovering their children after they have consented to their adoption, unless they can satisfy the Justices that their claim is legitimately made for the benefit of the children, it is a common occurrence for children who have been placed in orphanages or adopted to be subsequently removed by their parents for the sole purpose of deriving pecuniary advantage. It is very injurious, of course, to the interests of the children that they should be removed where the parents or natural guardians are not fitted, either morally or pecuniarily, to have the care of them. It may be thought that in introducing this Bill to your Lordships' House I have the intention of applying it to such cases as that which recently occurred at Dr. Barnardo's institution which has attracted considerable attention; but I introduced the Bill without any knowledge of the case which occurred in connexion with that institution. In fact, the Bill was framed long before that case was heard of. It originated more than a year ago, when Petitions were sent to me as Chairman of the Parliamentary Social Reform Committee from persons throughout the country who were interested in institutions which took care of destitute children, and who felt the necessity of some law which would enable them to do justice to children and turn them out useful members of society. The attention of Magistrates has long been directed to the abuses to which I refer. My Lords, the subject of this Bill has had the great advantage of having been twice considered by this Committee, and I have had the advice of several Members of both Houses who are interested in the work of rescuing destitute children; and, therefore, I may say with confidence that the greatest care has been taken to avoid all dangers which might have made it impracticable. Of course, we know there must be certain dangers in a Bill of this sort; but if any loopholes have been left in it, or if anything in it may be considered to be wrong, I hope that in Committee those errors may be rectified. It was stated when this Bill was first brought forward that it would lead to proselytism, and clauses have been introduced in order to prevent that, and providing that regard shall be had to the religion of the parents, and all the circumstances which it would be necessary for the Magistrates to know before they could make any order in the matter. Now, my Lords, the attention of Magistrates and persons in a public position has long been directed to the abuses to which I am now calling your Lordships' attention. The authors of these abuses are men and women living, as a general rule, outside the pale of civilization—that is to say, they look upon a child not as a treasure to cherish, not as a hope for the future, but simply as a chattel out of which they can draw the greatest possible pecuniary advantage. When we know that the parents take these children and drag them into every sort of evil and crime for the purpose of getting money to spend in drink, I think your Lordships will agree there is some need for legislation of this kind. Children are brought up by this class-of parents in hostility to all law, and to-all notions of morality, are they ultimately form a band of dangerous characters—a band which is increasing in number, and becoming a social danger in our large cities. From this population we may say spring murderers, thieves, and the dangerous classes of society. Benevolent individuals have done their best to rescue these children; but although parents are very willing in the early ages of their children to allow them to be taken into homes, or to be adopted, as soon as they reach an age when the children can be of service to them, and can earn money, they go to the benevolent individuals or homes and claim their children. Now, my Lords, this is a thing which has not been unnoticed in other countries. Other countries have experienced the same difficulty in this matter, and in many place a stringent laws have been passed to prevent people taking their children from, persons who have adopted them or from orphanages, where they are being properly brought up, in order that they may drive them into a life of crime. In asking your Lordships to read this Bill a second time, I am not asking you, to give your consent to any new principle, for it is a principle which has been adopted by many of the most enlightened and civilized countries in the world. In America there are several States which have passed laws relating to this subject. In Illinois there is a most stringent law with regard to it. la the State of New York a law was passed, in the year 1884 giving powers to benevolent institutions to request the parents of any child placed in them to-sign a document putting the child entirely in their hands, and after that document is signed the parents lose all right to it. Of course, my Lords, I do not ask that that should be done in this country, or that any such result should, be obtained except in a Court of Law or before Justices of the Peace. In France only this year a law has been, passed on the subject, a very stringent law, much more stringent than any that I am asking you to adopt. The French Government has taken the question up and passed a Bill by which certain classes of malefac- tors are placed outside the right to exercise or claim any power over their children. In fact, the children are made wards of the State; and they are boarded out, a vote of several millions of francs being taken for the purpose of supporting them. I do not think anything of that kind would be done by either your Lordships' House or by the other House of Parliament; but I do ask your Lordships to say that, with the consent of all parties interested, children may be legally adopted as the Justices at Petty Sessions may consider best, having regard to the religious opinions of the parents, and having regard also to the interests of the children. If the child is over 14 then the consent of the child itself must be given; and in the case of an institution there will be no-power of availing themselves of this Act unless they are incorporated under the Companies' Acts of 1862 and 1867; and if the Justices see any cause, on the application of any individual, to alter their decision they may do so at any time. My Lords, it is said that this Bill will enable parents to sell their children or to get rid of them. I do not see that that is a just criticism, because they can do that at this moment if they choose. I deny that this Bill would enable parents to sell their children, or make it less difficult for parents to do so. On the contrary, it would act as a deterrent on parents; and for this reason—that whereas at present they place their children in homes, knowing that they can get them out at a time when they are capable of earning money, they would not under this Bill be able to do that, and consequently they would be less ready to get rid of their children, knowing that they would not be able, unless they could show good cause, to get them from the homes where they were being taken care of in order to make money by them. And now with regard to the children working, and their parents making them work. As a matter of fact, the great majority of parents who claim their children in these cases do not get them back for the purpose of putting them to work in the ordinary sense in which going to work is understood. They get them really for criminal purposes: the boys are claimed in order that they may be taught to steal, and the girls for still more evil purposes. I can give your Lordships a few instances of actual facts which have occurred within a very short period. In a home for children, quite close to my own house, several instances of that kind have occurred, one of them within the last few days. A little girl was sent into the home, probably only for the purpose of getting her clothing renewed, her clothes being in so filthy a condition that they had to be burned, for hardly had she been supplied with the new clothes before her parents came and said they wanted the child back. In another case, the mother, who had only just come out of prison, claimed her child back because, as she openly avowed, since the child had been taken from her for the purpose of being placed in the home, she found she could not get as much money as when she was dragging the poor infant about the streets with her. Upon making inquiries into the matter, I may mention that I was told that 9d. a day is given for a girl child to drag about the streets, and 6d. for a boy. In another case a girl of 10 was sent for by her father to prevent her going to service, as he said it would pay him better (mind you, she was only 10 years of age) to send her on the streets! Another very bad case was that of a girl, who was telegraphed for, the telegram saying that her mother was dying; but when the girl arrived home she found the whole story was false, and the first question asked of her was whether she had brought her box in order that they might pawn her clothes. A friend of mine on being told there was no demand for such a measure, said he would ask the question of the first two men he met; The first person interrogated was a working man who said—"Why that is the very law we have wanted for a long time; I have refused to allow my wife to adopt a child because I knew it would be taken away from us again whenever it suited the parents." The next spoken to was a middle-class man, and he again told a similar story. His wife's sister dying and leaving a child, and the father being a drunkard, they were exceedingly anxious to adopt the child; but they felt it would be useless to do so if they had to give it up again whenever the drunkard might choose to demand it. In October of last year, a case came before Sir James Hannen where, after a child had been adopted and clothed, the parents claimed it, and refused to make any allowance to the working people who had adopted it, although they had incurred expense amounting to £12. Sir James Hannen felt the injustice of the case so much that he gave the foster-parents a sovereign out of his own pocket. In that case the mother had been confined in a lunatic asylum, and foster parents for the child were advertized for, and some working people in the North took it on the understanding that they were to have it permanently. They had maintained the child about 18 months, and had got very fond of it, when the mother came out of the lunatic asylum and claimed it. Of course, they had to give the child up without even being able to get paid for the clothes they had provided for it. There is no doubt in my mind that there are a large number of people in this country who are very desirous to obtain children, having no children of their own, and who would be glad to adopt children if only they felt they had a legal claim upon them when they had adopted them. A dreary place would be this earth Were there no little people on it; The song of life would lose its mirth Were there no children to begin it. Many childless men and women are feeling the force of the truth of these lines, and would gladly adopt children if they dared. I know that the Bill has no chance of passing this Session, but I ask that it may be sent before a Committee of your lordships' House. It might then come back in a shape which would make it acceptable to those who now might be inclined to oppose it. In conclusion, to my opponents I would say— If a better system's thine Impart it frankly, or make use of mine

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


My Lords, the noble Lord has very frankly admitted that he has no chance of having his Bill passed into law this Session, and the only effect therefore of your Lordships, giving a Second Beading to it would be to affirm the principle of it, in order that it may stand to some extent hereafter on that affirmation that it embodies a right and a wise principle. My Lords, it seems to me, I confess, that there is hardly a single section of this Bill, or a principle of it, so far as I can find a principle at all, to which I should not be entirely opposed. At the same time, I do not in the smallest degree deny that the motives which actuate the noble Lord are of the most praiseworthy character, and that there is to some extent an evil to be remedied. I think, however, he somewhat exaggerates the evil, and, thinking there is a great evil to be remedied, he not unnaturally strives to remedy it by doing what people frequently do, in trying to legislate for particularly hard cases they strike at a much wider principle. The Bill seeks, in dealing with this particular hardship, to alter the whole law of England with reference to the right of parental control. Now, that is one of the cardinal principles of our law, and the notion in connection with such a Bill as this of getting rid of that principle of our law would raise a very serious question indeed. No such change ever should be attempted upon the lines that this Bill is drawn upon; but if attempted at all it must go far wider and deeper, and treat the whole question of the right of parental control as one subject, not striving to pick out particular parts of the right of parental control and dealing with them. I have said that I have some difficulty in ascertaining the principle of this Bill. The only principle I can find in the Bill is that the principle of adoption should be imported into the law of this country, and that the right of parental control should be taken away in certain circumstances. Neither in the one aspect of it nor the other should I assent to a Bill of this sort; but when I come to consider the particular mode in which that principle is sought to be carried out, and the circumstances under which that principle is sought to be established, it is quite clear that the persons who drew this Bill found they were met at every turn by qualifications and restrictions that finally took away the original vigour and force of what they proposed to enact. When a child is adopted, instead of having all the rights of adoption, the framers declared that "nothing hereinafter contained shall confer on the adopted child any incident of blood relationship, right of succession, &c." Why not? If it was a real adoption why take away that? Again, suppose a child was thrown on the parish, one would have thought in reason and logic that the foster-parent, as he is called in the Bill, would have to pay for it, but he is not to do so. Why not? It has become his child. The object was that the parents were not to be freed from responsibility if the foster-parent was not able to support the child. It is quite clear what has happened. The difficulties which would arise here occurred to the framers of this Bill, because they found that to have carried that out would have destroyed the earlier sections. The authority over the child, and the obligations of the father and mother towards it, would absolutely cease. That is absolutely contradicted by the other sections, because one of the objects contemplated is to provide for the child's maintenance. Then to meet the difficulties that occurred to them the framers of this Bill have introduced provisions which effectually destroy the earlier sections. The whole Bill is ill-considered. The 13th section is the nucleus of the Bill, because it provides that an orphanage, home, or charitable institution may be the foster-parent; and questions as to the child's religious education or control might arise between that institution and the original parent, whom the public feeling of this country would recognize as the person entitled to have a voice in the matter as against some proselytizing Society that had the child in its custody. I do not find the words which the noble Lord has referred to about the religious creed of the child or parents being regarded, because that is one of the points of amendment which he contemplates. But supposing the father and mother change their religion and desire, for example, that instead of being educated in the Protestant faith the child should be brought up as a Roman Catholic—what criterion are the Justices to adopt? Are they to enter into the question whether it would be better for the child to be educated in the one religion or the other? All that is left at large, and it is just the sort of question that would cause a great amount of controversy. Controversies between parents and perhaps proselytizing orphanages or asylums are among the most mischievous things there can be. It seems to me that this Bill is open to every possible objection in point of construction, and it is open to the gravest objection as altering the whole principle of the law as between parent and child. The Bill, as I have said, is ill-considered according to the theory of its own construction, and is almost incapable of being worked, but besides that, it introduces a most serious innovation on the foundation principles of the law of England with reference to parent and child; and I hope the noble Lord will not render it necessary for me to move that the Bill be read a second time this day three months. I may mention that the evil, which I admit exists, is being considered in connection with the Poor Law Commission; and there is a Bill under the consideration of the Government for the purpose of preventing children deserted by their parents being taken away from the care of the Guardians if it can be shown that the parents, by reason of their bad character, are not persons fit to be entrusted with the guardianship of the children. One word more with regard to the adoption under Clause 14. A child not over 14 might be handed over contrary to its own wishes, and somebody else might be made its foster parent. I hope your Lordships will not encourage a Bill of this kind.


My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord has alluded to the Report of a Commission over which I had the honour to preside last Session, I must express my great satisfaction at learning that the Government intend to deal with that particular portion of the Report. It was clearly shown to us that this evil existed; that a certain number of children came under the care of the Guardians, were then placed out in an asylum, where they remained for years perhaps under proper control, when suddenly the parents (very often vicious parents), finding that something could be made by withdrawing the children from the institution, or the persons with whom they had been boarding out, took them away. That is a great hardship upon the children, and an injury to them, and it seems to me a very proper subject for legislation, though it would require to be very guarded. With regard to the Bill itself, I must say I entirely agree with what has been said by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack. I cannot see that it is ne- cessary to make such an extensive alteration in the law of this country, and I think if a change were made it should not be made in the manner contemplated by this Bill. There is one clause— namely, the 11th—on which I should greatly support the argument of the noble Lord. By the 11th clause the order made can be rescinded, so that after the foster parents have adopted the child, and have maintained it as their child for it may be years, an application may be made by the parents to rescind the order. Consider what may follow. Exactly the same thing may arise in that case which has given rise to so much controversy in other cases. The parents may have changed their minds on the subject of religion, or they may be instigated by other persons to bring the matter before the Justices of the Peace. Then arises the question, is a Justice of the Peace a proper person to decide difficult questions of that kind? I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord that the objects which the noble Lord has in view are excellent; but I do not think it is desirable that we should give our consent to the Second Reading of this Bill, looking at the general nature of it and the period of the Session, thereby committing ourselves to a principle which goes far beyond what the necessities of the case demand. I hope, therefore, the noble Lord will feel induced not to press the Motion.


My Lords, I would also ask the noble Lord to withdraw this Bill. I am sure his motives are most praiseworthy, but my objections to the Bills are founded on principle. Adoption is wholly unknown to the law of England. I could understand the introduction of a law of adoption such as exists in India, under which the person adopted becomes the child of the foster parents for all purposes, so that even if children are afterwards born to the foster parents the adopted child shares in the inheritance equally with such other children. There is sense in that arrangement, and some degree of justice, although it frequently leads to the greatest difficulties, quarrels, and litigation. I must not be taken as recommending to my noble friend the Hindu law of Adoption. For many years of my life I had to administer laws which gave rise to questions similar to those which would grow out of the alterations of the law proposed by this Bill. Questions between religious litigants give rise to difficulties such as would have to be dealt with under the 13th section of the Bill. My colleagues and I came to the conclusion that there was nothing like adhering to and enforcing parental authority. The law of England generally is that parents cannot divest themselves of parental rights or of the obligation to look after their children. The noble Earl spoke of traffic in children and how desirable it would be to put a stop to it. The direct and necessary tendency of this Bill would be to create that very traffic which the noble Lord seeks to destroy. Whilst in the case of a child who had parents certain questions would be asked and the Magistrate would exercise his judgment upon the facts, in the case of the unfortunate child who had no parents there would be no inquiry at all, and the child would, be handed over as a matter of course to the foster parent, or the person assuming the position, as, for instance, one of those institutions which would spring into existence on all sides if this Bill were passed. In practice, when I had to administer laws somewhat cognate, where the child was of sufficient age and intelligence, I always ascertained by careful and anxious inquiry what the wishes of the child were, and I am thankful to say that in that way I think succeeded in maintaining the law for the benefit of the children. I consider this Bill fraught with danger contrary to the laws and institutions of this country; and that it ought not to be readily adopted. Especially your Lordships ought not at this period of the Session to agree to the Second Reading, with no object but to get what must necessarily be an imperfect examination of the details in Committee. I think the noble Earl had much better withdraw the Bill, and, if he should think fit, introduce it again freed from its many defects and founded on a sounder basis than at present.


This Bill was down for a Second Reading on July 8th, and opposed by a noble and learned Lord, who would oppose it if referred to a Grand Committee. I hope that it will be read a second time. If it be referred to the Committee on Law, it must afterwards be re-committed to the Whole House; and if it is re-committed to a Committee of the Whole House, I do not believe it could be sent back to the Committee on Laws. I can see there is a struggle to give that Committee power over all Bills. The Bill is an experiment, and I have very great doubts of its success. As an old Member of this House, I say the sooner you get out of the present system of referring Bills to many Grand Committees, and return to a more suitable one, the more you will be honoured by the country and the world.


My Lords, I will not detain you with more than a few words. I regret the course which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has thought it necessary to take with regard to this Bill, which I consider a very useful one; but I presume, after his speech, that Lord Meath will not press the Bill further at this time. Referring to the Bill which the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has stated is under the consideration of the Government, I hope it will prove a useful measure, by enabling the managers to retain control of the children after leaving the Poor Law Schools. It would be a great help to the managers of those schools. I would ask, with regard to certain private schools which are under Government inspection, whether they could not be put upon the same footing as the Poor Law Schools? Many of them have been at work for a long time, and have contrived to keep numbers of children out of the Poor Law Schools. We think it a pity to brand a child perpetually as having been a Poor Law scholar, and it would be a matter for regret if the operation of such a Bill as this should be to send children to those schools. In one country where these questions have been made the subject of legislation, there is a very useful law that no parent should resume the right to a child where it has been left for a certain number of years to be supported by a public institution without refunding the cost of the child's education. The way that works is, that a parent thinks twice before he becomes liable to pay a sum of £20, or it may be £60. Many children are, therefore, left under the charge of foster parents, or in an institution without interference, until they are able to take care of themselves. I hope the Government will be able to add some clauses to the Bill which the noble and learned Lord has mentioned with reference to the Poor Law Schools, in order to provide that those schools only are to be used which are thoroughly efficient, and that they will have regard, to the interests of the public any measure which may be introduced on, the subject.


I only desire to explain, what I said was that the matter is under the consideration of the Government in the form of a Bill. I do not give any pledge in regard to the particular form the Bill will take. I think it would be irregular for me to do so, either for myself or for the Government.


My Lords, it is impossible not to be struck with the very great number of children' apparently in need of protection; and it seems only reasonable that where parents are unable to bring up their children properly, they should be enabled to place them in the care of others who are able to support them. I trust the noble Lord will not be discouraged in his benevolent intentions.


My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the Government acknowledge there is an evil to remedy, and I am also pleased to know that they have some intention, at all events, of considering whether they can diminish that evil in one particular line. But that line in regard to Poor Law Unions is only a small line, and I hope the Government will not forget the claims of other institutions. It appears to me that the suggestion of the noble, Lord Kinnaird, is worth consideration, and I hope your Lordships will think this matter over, and kindly give any assistance that you may think necessary by way of amendment.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

Bill (by leave of the House) withdrawn.