HL Deb 23 February 1891 vol 350 cc1321-34

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, in asking your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill, I do not propose to enter upon the subject of gambling generally, or upon the questions of ethics which have been so much discussed with regard to it, because I feel sure that whatever diversity of opinion there may be upon those points there will not be any difference of opinion that it is not expedient that boys and youths should enter upon the practice of betting and acquire habits of gambling before they arrive at an age which affords them that judgment and experience which would enable them to appreciate the dangers and the consequences of such habits and practices. And still more I think your Lordships will be agreed that it is not expedient that facilities should exist—on the contrary, that it would be desirable that they should be limited, or altogether got rid of—for tempting those who are of immature age to enter upon transactions of this description by holding out to them, as we know are held out, specious promises of certain gains and means of acquiring money which, in the vast majority of cases, and in the long run, they are sure to find delusive. That the evil exists I think there can be no doubt; that circulars are sent wholesale to boys at school and to youths at college pointing out to them the way in which, with what is described as little or no risk to themselves, they can have the prospect of acquiring large sums of money, is a fact about which there can be no question. I think your Lordships will feel that it would be desirable to put a stop to such proceedings, inasmuch as they have been unquestionably, in not a few instances, the source of positive evil and mischief. I acknowledge that the measure is, in a certain sense, a small one—it only deals with one class of acts of the same kind, and it may be said to cover only a limited area, but if the consequence of passing it should be to save even a few lives from being wrecked at their very outset, as so many are wrecked, which might otherwise have been honourable, prosperous, beneficial, to themselves and to the community, it would undoubtedly be a desirable thing to accomplish. It might, in individual cases, lead to a happy instead of to a disastrous life, and to this end I think may be accomplished without any of those counterbalancing disadvantages which unfortunately sometimes attend beneficent legislation. The object of the Bill is simply this: it is to render penal the sending of what are well known as betting touts' circulars, as they are now sent wholesale to boys at school and youths at colleges. It renders the sending of such circulars penal, and it raises a primâ facie presumption which, considering the circumstances, I think quite justifiable, that those circulars sent to boys and youths at colleges and schools are primâ facie sent to persons known to be infants. Of course leaving it open to the sender of the circular in each particular case to show that he had reasonable ground for believing that the person to whom he sent it was not an infant but an adult. I do not think I need detain your Lordships longer upon the object of this Bill. The scope of it will be intelligible enough without further words from me, and whatever criticism there may be upon its details,. I cannot think there is likely to be any diversity of opinion as to the end in view being a desirable one. I have been strongly urged to extend the scope of this Bill, or at all events to extend by legislation the area within which it is to operate. At present it is confined to what I may call "betting circulars." I have received many representations from Members of your Lordships' House, and from others outside the House that it would be very desirable that similar legislation should be passed with regard to what will be understood when I describe them as "money-lending" circulars, which are also sent wholesale to boys and youths. The two subjects are obviously closely cognate because the two systems work into each other. The knowledge that there will be facilities afforded of obtaining money if necessary from the money-lender operates to remove one restraint upon a young man in responding to the seductions of the betting circulars, and I do not think there can be any sound objection to an extension of the measure, because although there may be circumstances under which a borrowing transaction on the part of an infant would be perfectly legitimate, I do not think that any legitimate desire to borrow on the part of an infant would be likely to receive any valuable assistance from the receipt of any of these money-lending circulars; whilst, on the other hand, in many cases, it is certain they lead to the commencement of transactions by which a, may is encumbered and burdened of ten during many of the subsequent years, perhaps during the whole, of his life. Therefore, if I receive any encouragement from your Lordships to do so, I would certainly be disposed to extend the scope of the Bill. It would not be a large addition to extend its operation to money-lending as well as to betting circulars.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord Herschell.)


I am sure both parents and guardians must be grateful to the noble and learned Lord for introducing a measure to put a stop to the pernicious system, of betting by youths through these circulars, and if he had not forestalled me I was going to ask him whether he would include in the Bill, not only betting, but money-lending circulars, and make it penal for them to be sent to boys and youths at public schools and colleges, as they now are to an enormous extent. I hope your Lordships will accede to his suggestion, as he is, I am triad to hear, ready to include money-lending circulars within the scope of the Bill.


My Lords, I desire to say that there will be no objection to the Bill on the part of the Government. The only question will be as to the extension of its scope. To myself it seems to be the most unreasonable thing in the world that, while people are brought before Magistrates and dealt with summarily for fortune-telling, persons should be allowed to carry on a trade which is worse a great deal than fortune-telling, and far more injurious in its consequences. A great deal is heard at the present time of legislation for the benefit of the poor, and I am therefore glad that something is at last going to be done for those who are supposed to be rich, and who have been left very much to take care of themselves, whilst rigorous measures are adopted to protect the poor against being entrapped by persons who call themselves fortune-tellers. I cannot see why the Bill should not be extended to those persons who offer facilities for borrowing money under what are practically or absolutely false pretences. What is done by the senders of such circulars may not come technically under the legal definition of false pretence, but persons are deceived in being led to suppose that the repayment of the money would be made on easy terms, while the actual terms turn out to be quite different, so that the unfortunate borrowers are hampered for years by the obligations they find they have incurred. Young men are frequently drawn into this system of borrowing before they are of age, on the security of expectations, which, when they are ultimately realised, are encumbered to an extent which embarrass them for a long time, perhaps as long as they live. Unfortunately, young men who receive these circulars do in that way borrow largely before they come of age, and their liability for money, which perhaps really they have never received, hangs round their necks for the rest of their lives. I am glad the noble and learned Lord has taken the matter in hand, as I believe that legislation may be attended with results beneficial to all who are exposed to these temptations.


My Lords, I entirely approve of the object of the Bill, but I would call the noble and learned Lord's attention to the fact that he has simply made this offence a misdemeanour. If he will consider for a moment, I think he will see the clumsiness of the remedy which is proposed, instead of these offences being made triable before the Magistrates at Petty Sessions. He will see that the attainment of the object of the Bill is more likely to be secured by the remedy being made short and easy, without the necessity of bringing such cases before a Grand Jury to find a presentment. I believe it would be more effective if, instead of making the offence a misdemeanour for which, an indictment may be preferred before a Grand Jury, it were made an offence for which any person charged with it might be brought before the Magistrates in the ordinary way to be summarily dealt with.


My Lords, I do often almost envy my noble and learned Friend opposite his good fortune in bringing forward all the beneficial measures in his power, such as the Bill which he now proposes. I have often in that view wished I could be an ex-Chancellor myself if it were not for the horrible necessity of being a Chancellor first. For the Bill itself, I really think it would be futile unless the addition were made which has been suggested, because if these people were not prevented from sending circulars to youths offering to lend them money, they would simply leave off sending circulars with regard to betting and would substitute others of a money-lending character but taking care that the offer to lend money should include a stipulation or a proposition that it should be employed in betting transactions. I entirely agree also, if I may be allowed to say so, with the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, that it would be better to put in words which would give to the Magistrates summary power of dealing with the alleged offence. Further, I think, as I mentioned to my noble and learned Friend as I came to the House, there will be a difficulty with regard to the evidence against the persons charged with sending these letters. That will be a very difficult matter indeed, unless you put something into the Bill to make a primâ facie case against any of those persons requiring it to be disproved that he is the person who has sent the letters. I would therefore suggest that if a letter of any of the kinds described in the Bill is sent with the firm name or the known name of any person, that should be primaâfacie evidence that it came from him, with liberty, of course, to that person to show that he knew nothing of it, had nothing to do with it, and that his name was appended to it without his authority.


My Lords, I do not think that a Bill to restrain gambling, as proposed by my noble and learned Friend, can fail to be received with gratitude in this House. Perhaps, no body of individuals in this country is more exposed to the evils aimed at by the Bill, arising from this pest of money-lending circulars, than the Members of your Lordships' House, whether as sons or fathers. Those persons who send out these circulars do not draw the line at colleges and public schools, for I have a boy of 12, and therefore not old enough yet to be in a public school, who has received a good many of these circulars, at the private school where he is, in which he is told that if he borrows any money his father need not know anything about it, but that if in due time it became necessary he should know it he would no doubt be delighted to pay the money. It is fortunate that in many cases boys make a confidant of a headmaster, and in that way further evil was prevented. He showed the letters to his schoolmaster, and got, of course, some judicious advice, but that perhaps does not always happen; and I hope, therefore, your Lordships will approve this Bill, and rid the country of this terrible pest.


I am sure this Bill will be received with great gratitude over the whole country. There has been no Church Conference, decanal or diocesan, for some time past at which the subject has not been discussed with ardour, and at which attention has not been directed to the miseries which betting and gambling are bringing upon young persons and their families. It may be difficult to determine where the balance is to be struck or the line drawn between such betting as it may be thought ridiculous to do more than discountenance, and such betting as is bringing ruin upon a large number of young fellows at the present time. The noble and learned Lord in supporting the Bill has spoken with his accustomed moderation of the evil which attends the sending of circulars to schools and colleges, but he says very truly that it exists upon a scale which renders it worthy of interference by the Legislature. There is no clergyman, I am sure, but knows that the system is being carried on upon a vast scale indeed, and whatever else may be criminal and wrongful, there can be no baser trade than that of instigating ignorant young men to enter into betting and gambling transactions in order to make an enormous profit out of their inexperience and misery. It does indeed exist upon a great scale and in all directions. In a single square I know of two most unfortunate cases that have occurred within the last few months not far from where their Lordships are sitting. In the first, a very promising young footman had disappeared under terrible circumstances, leaving behind him proof that he had been extensively engaged in betting. In the second instance, at the other corner of the square, a young secretary committed suicide under most painful circumstances, after having been found to be fraudulent with regard to cheques to the amount of nearly £2,000. This young man's room was full of papers, of one of which I have here a copy. The accounts weekly furnished to him by the commission agent, whom I suppose, poor fellow, he thought he was employing, but who was really employing him, which were found after his death, are made out in a systematic manner, giving the dates of the meetings, the names of the horses, and the balance upon the amounts lost or won. Letters from this agent were also found, showing that occasionally small sums were sent to the unfortunate young man as winnings, but that he was more frequently asked for large cheques to make good the losses. He had been lured on by those means until a life which had begun well ended in terror and degradation. But that is not the end of the sad story. A friend who had been abroad for two years, on returning inquired for the young man, after his death, and on learning his fate remarked that he was the second friend of his who in the meantime had committed suicide through the unbearable wretchedness produced by the betting temptations of the men aimed at by the Bill. I would not have mentioned those cases did I not know that they are typical instances. I am assured by business men that there are at this moment many luncheon bars in the City where young men are tempted to bet and to borrow money for gambling purposes. Young men in those places are continually solicited to bet on horses, and are offered money to begin with, the men who make those offers being well assured that once they get the young men in their power they will be able in some way to produce the money even if they are driven to help themselves to it. Scarcely less evil is produced by the vile system of "money-lending," and I hope most heartily that the noble and learned Lord will include in his Bill the money-lending circulars which are being sent in such numbers to almost everybody. Not only youths at college and boys at school but a whole population is being drenched with these circulars. There is a kindred matter which might, I think, be more thoroughly attended to, and that is the large numbers of circulars which are sent to every house from Hamburg and other places on the Continent relating to foreign lotteries. I spoke to a legal authority on the subject the other day and he told me they were illegal, and that it was merely an accident that they had not been stopped by the Post Office. Two more came in a few days to my house, and they go on in profusion. If they are illegal the Postmaster General's attention ought to be called to the fact that these circulars are being constantly delivered, and I hope that an effectual check will be given to the practice.


I am very thankful to the noble and learned Lord for having introduced this Bill. I can give him every encouragement. Between 12 and 13 years ago, with the assistance of my noble Friend (being then in another place) I successfully passed through the House the Infants' Protection Act, which went very much on the same lines as this Bill. Every effort has been made since to overturn that measure by the parties it was intended to reach; and though I was unsuccessful in another place in passing that part of the Bill which made the judge and not the jury the arbiter of what were necessaries for infants in law, yet the simple fact that infants were rendered utterly incapable of contracting, and that no advances made to them while under age could be validated by any subsequent advance after they came of age, has operated as a very material check upon the doings of those depredators who prey upon that particular class. The Bill, with the assistance of my noble and learned Friend, was passed into law; and from that time to this it has never been found possible by those persons to get round the clauses, although every effort has been made to do so. I think we need not be in the least afraid of being accused of legislating in a grandmotherly spirit in reference to this Bill, because it is greatly needed in practice. I think that the noble and learned Lord has done a great public service in introducing it; and I sincerely hope it may be passed as soon as possible.


My Lords, I merely wish to say a few words in gratitude to the noble and learned Lord for the Bill he has introduced; and I do so, not I am sure because it wants in any way a recommendation to the Members of this House, but because I cannot help thinking that the Bill may not commend itself as easily and as generally elsewhere as it does to Members of this House; and, therefore, anything like a general expression of opinion in favour of the Bill here will do as much good in drawing favourable attention to this most important subject as possibly even the passing of the Bill itself. Now, I cannot help thinking that the noble and learned Lord himself rather depreciated the importance of his Bill. He talked of it as a small measure. In my humble opinion there is not a more important measure before Parliament at this moment to the well-being of society than that we are now discussing, which proposes to check a noxious and lucrative trade, involving the demoralisation of the youth of the country, and bringing misery and disaster into many homes and families throughout the Kingdom. I hope that the suggestions which fell from the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, and also from my noble Friend near me, the Master of the Rolls, may be accepted as improvements in the Bill by the noble and learned Lord who has introduced it, for the purpose of facilitating the action of the Bill, and the conduct of proceedings in carrying out its object. I do not think the noble and learned Lord himself realises the enormous extent to which the mischief has gone which his Bill is aimed at suppressing. According to the Report alluded to by the most rev. Primate upon the facts which came before Convocation from various parts of England, carefully gathered together, it appears that there are no less than 10,000 of these professional betting agents in England alone. They are to be found in almost every locality, most of them dealing with young men, and dealing with them chiefly because they make more easily profit out of their inexperience than they would out of men older and with more sense in their heads. Their work is well known to go on, and it cannot be easily checked without the assistance of measures like this. It is going on at our public schools, at Eton, at Sandhurst, at the Universities—Oxford and Cambridge, and elsewhere. That is quite well known. The Bill does not deal with gambling in general, and, therefore, some of the cases cited by the Most Reverend Primate were not illustrations of the operations of this Bill. Gambling in general is the subject of a great deal of our legislation. There is nothing that the legislature has been more assiduous in trying to put down; but, as I have said, this Bill does not deal with gambling in general, but seeks, by protecting youth, to strike at these nurseries of vice and ruin. Gambling, I believe, though I am not a lawyer, is classed amongst public nuisances in our criminal law. It is a misdemeanour, and I cannot conceive a more offensive trade, or more contagious disease, in the country than it is. Certainly it ought to be prohibited in the same way that other public nuisances are. The Legislature has made constant efforts to put down gaming in general, but in all the Acts on the subject there has been a difficulty which we must bear in mind in dealing with even so much-required a Bill as this. The difficulty of legislating in regard to gambling in any shape at all is to steer clear between condemning harmless amusements and neglecting to penalise a most dangerous vice. The Acts which followed the Commission of 1844 have all taken this distinction most carefully; they have distinctly excepted wagering from the Common Law of Contracts, and have condemned it as being against public policy. It is distinctly made an illegal practice, and the Legislature has drawn a line between such games as faro, hazard, roulette, &c., and amusements which often involve money payments on a small scale, but which have nothing whatever to do with the subject of this Bill. The Bill is simply for the protection of youth and for the suppression of betting agencies which, are making enormous profits at this moment from the inexperience and aptitude for excitement of boys who are thus led from small beginnings to acquire the habit, and a taste for gambling. Some persons appear to think that the cause for alarm is exaggerated, inasmuch as there is no such high play now as there was in the days of Fox and Sheridan; but all are agreed that the evil has spread among all classes and ages. Servants, small tradesmen, workpeople, and pot-boys are engaged in betting. The Report of Convocation relates an instance of two boys on their way to school, settling the amount of their bets upon horse races in halfpence. This Bill is for the protection of youths from the first allurements of systematic betting. Some people are so foolish as to assert, and I have heard parents say that after all the stakes in these agents' books are very small, amounting perhaps only to a few shillings. So are the first steps in dram-drinking very small, but they are not the less certain to end in slavery to an unconquerable passion. There is one thing I must ask your Lordships to consider in this training of youth in the first nursery of gambling—for I am sorry to say I know something of this matter. It is very remarkable, but somehow or other these betting agencies manage to keep their young victims at first from the best thing that could happen to them, that is a good loss at starting, and to keep them for a time in a course of small winnings. And how can this be? Why, by blunting and breaking down that fine sense of honour, the destruction of which is after all the most dangerous part of these transactions. It is, however, not only the demoralisation of youth, but the injury done to families throughout this country, which this Bill of the noble and learned Lord will strike at. What a farce is the cant of education, when this vice is allowed to accompany it! My Lords, I fear a good deal of this entrapping of youth in the first steps of gambling is not done through these circulars alone, but in private life there are men and women—ladies—who almost perforce lead young lads to take the first steps in gambling at their houses. We cannot deal with that evil in this Bill, but I hope we can see our way to the infliction of adequate penalties upon these public agents who are sapping the life and happiness of the country, who are making gain for themselves out of the demoralisation of our youth, and introducing ruin in many homes.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words more than have been said already about this Bill, and I will take very little time to say them. I can myself testify to the existence of the evil, and not only so but that it is growing very rapidly. I can testify that whereas it was somewhat prevalent in Public Schools 20 years ago, when I was myself a public schoolmaster, it has largely increased since that time, and is going on increasing. But there is one thing which makes this Bill particularly valuable in my eyes from a totally different point of view, and that is that the moral effect of the Bill will be to put a black mark against the practice of sending out those circulars and upon the agents or persons who send them out. Not long since I was very much startled to see on the list of a Church Committee, who were engaged in raising money for building a church, the name of a man whom I knew as one of those betting agents, and whose circulars I had seen. On my remonstrating against such a person being allowed on a Committee of that kind, I was immediately met with the charge that I was discrediting a well known and very useful occupation. I think the sooner Parliament makes it plain that those persons do not follow a useful occupation the better it will be for the community at large.


I am sure the noble and learned Lord will be well satisfied with the reception his Bill has met with at the hands of your Lordships. I have never before heard such a unanimous expression of opinion on any subject which has been brought before your Lordships' House as has been evoked by this Bill. I trust the expression of opinion may be equally unanimous on the other side of the Central Hall. But, I fear, we may perhaps in the warmth of our sentiments against the practice complained of lose sight of the extreme difficulty in framing provisions that will prevent it. That is the real difficulty we have to deal with. We have no doubt whatever that it is desirable to stop these betting and loan circulars being sent to persons under age, if we can do it. My fear is that the men engaged in this business are men to whom character is of little importance; that they will change their names, use other persons' names, and employ the agency of men of straw to conduct their correspondence, and the proof will be, as my noble and learned Friend behind me has already pointed out, will be exceedingly difficult, and the Bill may miss its mark. I listened with some melancholy to the observations of my noble Friend (Lord Norton) that there is nothing which the Legislature has pursued so sedulously as the prevention of gambling by legislation. If the state of things we see around us at the present time is the result of long and sedulous action on the part of the Legislature, I am afraid it does not give us much hope for the future in respect to sedulous endeavours. I should be very glad if it could be made penal to join in playing with any person who is under age, I believe that the evil is so great. But I do not suggest a remedy that is beyond the possibilities of the moment. There is one remedy I would suggest to the noble and learned Lord, which I want him to take into his consideration. It may be possible that my unlearned mind may not see the difficulties; but it appears to me that the great object of the men who send out money-lending circulars is to get young men into their toils, not for the few shillings or pounds that they can dispose of, but to get them into their toils so that they shall have heavy debts hanging round them when they come of age, and then induce them to renew their acceptances and force them to pay. I should like to make it a plea in answer to an action of that kind that a similar debt had been contracted by the person sued when under age to the same plaintiff. If that idea could be thrown into practical shape, I am sure it would take away the great object that these men have in view, and do more than anything else to put an end to a practice which we unanimously condemned.


I have, of course, every reason to be satisfied with the reception this Bill has met with. I quite agree with the noble Marquees that nothing is more difficult than by means of legislation to effectually carry out the end we have in view, and that, however carefully you may frame a measure of this description there are quite certain to be attempts, and quite certain to be-almost successful attempts, to get round it and do that which you are seeking to prohibit. But, on the other hand, I think, notwithstanding that, you may gain great advantage by putting obstacles in the way of doing it, and that although you do not altogether succeed in your object, you will diminish and check the evil if you make it more difficult and dangerous to practice. I think, therefore, the noble Marquess will agree with me that though we are fully conscious of the impossibility of altogether preventing evasion we ought not on that account to be deterred from at any rate making some attempt to check the evil. I am much obliged for the suggestions made by noble Lords. I agree with the Lord Chancellor that it would be an advantage to make those offences punishable by summary conviction rather than by indictment. I would rather see a prospect of these offences being punished on summary conviction, even with diminished penalties, than make them subject to indictment for misdemeanour; for if imprisonment is one of the possible penalties that will act as a sufficient deterrent, it would not perhaps be rendered a greater terror if two or three months longer term were added on a conviction for misdemeanour. Then the Master of the Rolls referred to money-lending circulars. I am not quite sure whether it would be possible to insert a clause relating to them. I have consulted about it and it seems doubtful. Therefore, the better course would be to introduce another Bill and then to consolidate them in Committee. If your Lordships will allow me I would ask the House, immediately after this Bill has been put, to authorise another to render penal the sending of money-lending circulars to infants with the view of bringing the two Bills on together.

On Question, agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.