HL Deb 21 June 1894 vol 25 cc1609-12

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, it will not be necessary for me to detain your Lordships at any length in asking yon to read a second time this Bill which has already passed the other House. Its object is to strengthen the legislation to which Parliament has already given its sanction for the purpose of protecting children from cruelty. The Bill is strictly an amending measure, amending in a number of respects the Acts which Parliament has previously passed. Of course, it would be out of place on the present occasion for me to trouble your Lordships by calling attention to each of the provisions it is proposed to amend or the supplementary provisions it is proposed to add. They are essentially separate and distinct; and that, of course, would be matter for consideration in Committee, and not upon the Second Reading of the Bill. I think your Lordships can entertain no doubt that this is a subject well worth the attention of Parliament. The experience of the last 10 years, and more especially of the last five years, has brought to light an amount of cruelty towards young children which is perfectly appalling. Your Lordships will, I am sure, agree that if ever the necessity for legislation such as Parliament passed in 1889 has been exhibited it has been in the present case. No doubt the powers which were then entrusted to various persons in reference to the protection of children were considerable, and there were not a few who at that time entertained some apprehensions with regard to entrusting powers so large— fears were expressed lest it might involve so much interference with parental control as to lead to dangerous results. Happily, those who have been chiefly instrumental in putting this Act into operation have exhibited a care, discretion, and tact which has prevented those consequences which might well have resulted if less care and tact had been shown, and proves, I. think, that your Lordships may well enable powers in addition to those which have been already exercised to be put into operation. In the last five years, since the Act of 1889 was passed, the number of convictions for cruelty to children have been no less than 5,460. That, my Lords, is surely proof that Parliament did wisely to pass that Act, and when I tell your Lordships that the total number of persons prosecuted was only 5,792—you will see that in only 332 cases were there no convictions; that is to say, the convictions amounted to 94.27 per cent, of those prosecuted—your Lordships will agree that the views of those who put the Act into operation as to its necessity has been thoroughly justified in the result. Of course, it is not to be supposed that even of the 332 persons who were discharged, there was no ground for bringing them to trial, because in cases of doubt the doubt was very properly given in their favour, and there could be no conviction. But the fact that there was so small a percentage not convicted shows that the utmost care has been exercised on the part of those who undertook the prosecutions in those cases. This does not represent anything like the total amount of work done for the benefit of children. It is not only by prosecutions that they are protected, but also by the warnings to cruel parents, which frequently prevent the necessity of prosecutions. Out of 47,000 complaints inquired into, 5,000 were found to be either without foundation or could not be dealt with, 28,895 were warned, and, as I have said, the prosecutions were 5,792. It has been frequently found, and even in cases of a serious nature, it has been sufficient to give a warning and let the persons accused of cruelty know that their conduct was under observation, to stop the cruelties they were committing. Your Lordships will no doubt feel, considering that in the great majority of cases the cruelty found to have been committed towards children was stopped by the warnings given, that is a much better result than in every ease of necessity undertaking a prosecution of parents, which would frequently lead to their imprisonment. Another happy circumstance is this: that where prosecutions have occurred it has seldom been necessary to resort to further proceedings. Of 7,398 persons taken into Court for cruelty to children, nearly 7,000 are now living with their children, and under happier circumstances in the great majority of cases than they ever experienced before. Therefore, the result has been that happily it has not been found necessary to destroy the home and family; and even after imprisonment the parents have returned home and the family has been happier and more prosperous than before the prosecution. I hope your Lordships will consider this extremely gratifying, as showing that steps have been taken to put a stop to this great evil. Of course, it has not been found possible to put the powers given into operation in some parts of the country; but there is every reason to hope and believe that in many parts of the country where punishment has been inflicted that much good has been done thereby, and that the evil itself has been greatly diminished. This Act proposes to amend and strengthen the previous law, and I will only touch upon two or three points by way of illustration. Under the original Act the age limit for boys is 14; it is proposed to extend that to 16 in regard to punishment being inflicted in cases of ill-treatment. For example, supposing a boy was half-starved, but over 14 years of age, no steps could be taken under the provisions of the Act. It has been found by experience there are some cases in which protection is just as necessary as in the cases of younger children. Then, again, the word "ill-treatment" used in the former Act was subject to various constructions by different Justices, and some of them— a not inconsiderable number, although a minority—held that "ill-treatment" does not cover an assault; that if a parent ill-treated his child by starving it he came within the Act; but that if he assaulted the child, he must be dealt with for that offence, and that consequently the provisions of this Act were inapplicable. I will not myself on this occasion express any opinion of my own as to whether "ill-treatment" covers an assault; but your Lordships will, at all events, agree that it is as well that difficulty should be removed, and that in future an assault should come within the Act. Well, then, the utmost term of imprisonment upon summary conviction is now three mouths. It is proposed to extend the term to six months, but, of course, if the accused demand it he can claim a trial by jury. Considering there are a large number of other cases in which punishment of between three and six months is inflicted, I think your Lordships will consider it desirable that the present punishment on summary conviction should be extended to six months. Then there is a provision with regard to dangerous occupations, such as acrobats and contortionists—that licences shall be obtained so that it can be seen whether the child is being properly cared for, and not ill-treated. I do not think it necessary that I should detain your Lordships now by going into all the various points of detail dealt with by this Bill. I think I have said enough to show that it is strictly in the nature of an amending measure that it is intended in many cases to remove defects and to make the administration of justice in the different Courts uniform. I trust your Lordships will consider I have said sufficient to justify this Bill, and to induce you to give it a Second Reading.

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

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Monday next.