HL Deb 03 March 1893 vol 9 cc917-23

asked the Lord President whether Her Majesty's Government would follow up the Home Office Circular of 25th April, 1892, by making the Probation of First Offenders Act, 1887, compulsory in cases of theft by offenders under 20 years of age; and if Her Majesty's Government would amend the Education Act of 1870 in accordance with the recommendation of the majority of the Royal Commission on Education contained in paragraph 60 of the Report dated 27th June, 1888. He said he was sorry he had been unable to comply with a request that he would separate the two questions, for they hung together, and could not be separated. By the efforts of the late Lords Fitzgerald and Milltown the extension of the First Offenders Act, 1887, to Ireland, which had been opposed in the House of Commons by Mr. Healy, was carried out by their Lordships. A Home Office Circular, signed by Sir Godfrey Lushington, and dated 25th April, 1892, was sent to all the Chairmen of Quarter Sessions, urging them to make more use of the Act. Sir Horatio Lloyd, Chairman of the Chester Quarter Sessions, stated there last June that he had received the Circular, and that he had put the Act in force in 15 cases; he spoke highly of it, and of the desirability of not sending boys to prison to be contaminated, but two stipendiary magistrates had told him that they had disregarded them. About the same time an undergraduate at Cambridge, who was 19 years of age and who had taken a good degree, carried off some books from the town and University libraries. He did not sell or pawn them, and when he was brought before the magistrate he pleaded guilty, and got a sentence of eight months. It was believed that he had gone off his head from over-pressure; and he himself and the sitting Member, and also his opponent at the elections, had all made representations to the Home Secretary to induce him to give this young fellow the advantage of the First Offenders Act, but Mr. Matthews, with much inconsistency, was obdurate, and, in spite of the Circulars he had issued throughout the country, would do nothing. Last winter a boy of 14 stole some silk and was sentenced to two months' imprisonment at Macclesfield. Petitions numerously signed were sent from that town to Mr. Asquith to give him the benefit of the Act; but Mr. Asquith also was obdurate, and the boy finished his two months, and since that time had gone to a home. Meantime the newspapers said that further Circulars had been sent by the Home Secretary to the Magistrates at Macclesfield urging the use of the Act. Assuming that the Act was a good one—and all the Law Lords in the House had supported it—and that it was a necessary Act, since the Magistrates did not sufficiently use their discretion, it would appear that the discretion of the Home Office was not to be trusted, and it would therefore be better to make the Act compulsory for all thefts by first offenders under 20 years of age. But a stronger argument was that it would be a great injustice to condemn to prison boys who had not been taught any better. Many of the Board school children received no religious instruction whatever, and it was not fair to thus condemn young offenders who had not been taught to discriminate between right and wrong. This amendment of the First Offenders Act was, in short, the necessary corollary of the Education Act of 1870. Mr. Justice Stephens, in his history of the Criminal Law, had shown that the Criminal Law was an expansion of the second table of the Decalogue, and that the Catechism taught children to observe the Decalogue and the Criminal Law. There was a legislative precedent for such an amendment—every dog might have his first bite; every boy his first theft. If anyone said that was not a precedent for human beings he would reply that the Education Act of 1870 brought up the boys in Boards schools worse than dogs, for dogs are born with true and honest instincts, whilst those of mankind were of the contrary nature. He might be asked why he had restricted himself to the Eighth Commandment. He had done so on account of the great difference between theft and murder. He would call attention to the difference between the Sixth and Eighth Commandments. Everybody had an instinctive horror of murder; but it was only religion that inculcated the difference between meum and tuum. The natural instinct of man was not in favour of an observance of the Eighth Commandment, and man was always inclined to follow his predatory instincts. With primitive man and with all men not under the influence of religion might was right. With us a pirate was hostis humani generis, but with the ancient as well as the modern Greeks it was a title of honour, and etymologically it meant a man who endeavoured to get his livelihood. Again, klepht, a robber, was a title of distinction in modern Greece. That the natural instinct of man was towards theft was proved by both language and customs. The ancient Britons had no word for stealing; and the Eighth Commandment in Welsh had to be rendered by a Latin word, "Na ladratta;" there was, indeed, another word in Welsh, but it only meant "to bear" or "to carry," in the sense of Shakespeare's "convey." Mountaineers, again, had always plundered the plains, and a Welsh war-song had the words given by Mr. Peacock— The mountain sheep are sweeter, But the valley sheep are fatter; We therefore deemed it meeter To carry off the latter. On the other hand, men made use of euphemisms to disguise theft; the Borderers called cattle stealing, cattle lifting, and Disendowment was the Parliamentary word for plundering a Church. In fact, wherever there was no religion, or where it was disregarded or obscured by ambition there was no difference between the instincts of a pre-historic man with a bigger stone-axe than his neighbours, or those of the Leader of a Parliamentary majority. With regard to the Education Act of 1870, the country had learned much by experience, and had lost many of the illusions with which Mr. Forster introduced it. The 3d. rate, which he in his optimism said was all it would cost the country, soon increased beyond four times that amount in many places, and we had not yet seen the end of its cost. But worst of all had been the deception of those who trusted to Mr. Cowper Temple, and we had lost belief in what he and his friends called "common Christianity," which was expected to cause the Board schools to teach religion much as the voluntary schools did. It should rather be called Christianity reduced to its lowest terms; and "common" had now more the sense in which it was used by St. Peter in describing his vision at Joppa. The Bishop of St. Asaph proved, not long ago in the leading journal, the truth of his assertion that in Wales the teaching of central doctrine of Christianity was in precarious hands. How could it be otherwise when creeds, catechisms, the Decalogue, and the Bible were excluded from 37 Board schools in two counties of Wales? Even in the voluntary schools religious education was much restricted and hampered. Whether in the case of pre-historic man, of Board school children taught no religion, or of people who disregarded it or had forgotten it, the distinction between meum and tuum was soon lost. He would not refer to what went on in another place, but would ask what other explanation could be given of the Lord President's statement in that House a few nights ago that no Irish landlord had been robbed. The people who could, but would not, pay rent, and followed out the Plan of Campaign, had robbed their landlords. The Pope himself had condemned that as dishonest, and surely the Lord President was not going to set himself up as a better judge of morals than the Pope? He would ask the Lord President whether he would consider the necessity of re-establishing religious education in the schools throughout the country? Whether crime had increased or not was uncertain; it was denied by Sir Edmund Du Cane in this month's Nineteenth Century, but it was certain that the moral condition of the country had deteriorated, and fraud and dishonesty leading to suicide had increased. He would ask the Lord President to take into consideration the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Education, and to re-establish at least the Catechism, the necessity of which had been so well pointed out by Mr. Justice Stephen. The London School Board had at last voted by 37 to 8 in favour of Christian moral instructional the schools. From Mr. Gladstone they were accustomed to hear what they did not often hear from other people, and also it perhaps mattered little what might be the opinions of the noble Earl as Lord President, but in his other capacity of Secretary of State for India it certainly was of importance that he should not show indifference to religion when he had in his care the destiny and welfare of 40,000,000 Mussulmans and 200,000,000 Hindoos, who, though idolaters, were deeply religious subjects of Her Majesty.


asked the noble Lord representing the Home Office to pause before assenting to the idea of making the probation of first offenders compulsory, and to consider the difficulties which might arise in pursuing such a course. He had a good deal to do with this Act in another place, and since then, as Chairman of Quarter Sessions, he had seen the Act put into force; and he believed one of the greatest advantages of the Act was that, when a young criminal was convicted, a householder was bound over to bring him up during 12 months if called upon. In his judgment that provision was the greatest incentive to a young man not to commit a second offence, and to lead an honest life. He therefore hoped the application of the Act would not be made, as proposed, compulsory, and therefore ineffective.


The noble Lord has asked two questions rolled into one, and has travelled in doing so over such an enormous extent of ground that it would take all the few Members of the Liberal Party present in your Lordships' House to fully answer him. I shall only deal with the first, because the second does not concern the Department for which I am instructed to respond. He asks that the Probation of First Offenders Act shall be made compulsory in cases of theft by offenders under 20 years of age. The heading of the Act as it now stands is, "An Act to permit the conditional release of First Offenders in certain cases." The provisions of the Probation of First Offenders Act, as well as similar provisions in Section 16 of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, are no doubt, very useful when applied in appropriate cases, and a Home Office Circular issued in April, 1892, recommended magistrates to take more frequent advantage of them. As the noble Lord has read the circular that was issued to all Chairmen of Quarter Sessions, I will not read it again; but in it noble Lords will observe that a very small percentage of persons dealt with under the Act have been called upon to appear and receive judgment, or were known to the police to have been subsequently convicted of a fresh offence. The Secretary of State, in these circumstances, felt justified in issuing the Circular urging on magistrates the advisability of making more general use of these enactments. But to make their application compulsory in all cases of persons under 20 convicted of larceny, without regard to the circumstances of the individual case, would be most mischievous. It would be an intimation that children and youths under 20 might safely go on committing theft until they had been at least once convicted. This would not only affect children of the criminal classes, but would put temptation in the way of young servants and employés. It would also be an inducement to older criminals to corrupt children and young persons and employ them in crime, as they could tell them that even if caught they would not be punished. The application of the powers under the Act are clearly a matter for judicial discretion. The question asked by the noble Lord may bear some fruit by accentuating the Home Office Circular of April, 1892, but I am sure that he would not wish to press forward anything that might increase criminal actions by younger members of our population.


My Lords, my noble Friend who asks the question will not think me guilty of discourtesy to him in asking my noble Friend behind me to answer that part of it relating to the Home Office. I know that my noble Friend is anxious that I should not be over-burdened with work, and I will point out to him that having already two Departments to answer for it is scarcely reasonable to call upon me to reply for a third. I will, however, say a few words with regard to that part of the noble Lord's question which refers to the Home Office, because I hold a very strong opinion upon the matter. I regret that more advantage is not taken of the Act, and I hope that magistrates will avail themselves more frequently of the power granted by the Act. I gathered from my noble Friend that we ought to put in the same class pre-historic man and Board school scholars. He also gave us a very interesting digest of the Ten Commandments, and he gave a certain character to the Welsh people which they might hardly be inclined to accept. I am not quite sure whether he finally acquitted them of a predilection for stealing, but as far as I could discover he came to the conclusion that stealing was not naturally a crime in the eyes of mankind, and he thereupon drew the somewhat curious conclusion that it was desirable first offenders should not be punished. I must say that I do not see the connection in logic between the two proposals. I am not going to revive the old controversy which raged so fiercely concerning the Cowper-Temple Clause and the kind of religious instruction which was given in Board schools, but unless I am wrongly informed, except in a minority of those schools, religious instruction of a certain kind is given. I am sure my noble Friend will recognise that, and also what has been done in the London Board schools, where the resolution he approves has just been come to. I do not think it would be at all desirable to re-open this very difficult question—and certainly not on this occasion—of the precise amount of religious instruction which should or can be given in those schools which are attended by children belonging to so many religious denominations. Every right-minded man I suppose would desire that his children should be brought up religiously and morally; but into the mode in which religions instruction should be given in Board schools I must respectfully decline to enter now. The noble Lord may, however, I think, console himself, for I have never heard that there is any connection between Board schools and crime, and when the noble Lord is able to show that a larger percentage of Board school scholars than of children in other schools or from the remaining portion of the population are addicted to crime, I have no doubt that his statement will be carefully examined into, and will, if necessary, form the subject of inquiry.