HL Deb 23 July 1896 vol 43 cc418-28

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, "That the House do now resolve itself into Committee. "


said he would like to say a few words because, since the Bill had been read a second time, it had been very considerably altered in Committee. As he explained on the Second Reading, the Bill was promoted on behalf of the London County Council after prolonged inquiries and negotiations, conducted both by the Council and their predecessors, the Metropolitan Board of Works, and the idea was that an extension of the present Act was necessary, inasmuch as it had been found to be very largely inoperative. The noble Marquess the Prime Minister, on the Second Reading, expressed some fear that possibly the proposed action of the Bill might interfere with or check the charitable actions either of individuals or of institutions. It was the earnest intention and desire of the promoters to avoid any such interference, and the Committee gave very considerable and minute attention to that point. They took a great deal of interesting evidence first of all of the London County Council officials, of Mr. Braxton Hicks, and other of the London Coroners, as to the necessity of extending the present law. Evidence was also given by people connected with various charitable institutions—such as Mr. Rudolph, Secretary to the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society; by Dr. Barnardo; by Mr. Waugh, of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; by Mrs. Abraham, who was considerably interested in various Catholic rescue institutions and convents; by Miss Mason, the well-known Local Government Inspector for boarded-out children; and by Mrs. Hardy, of Manchester, on behalf of an admirable local society which had done much good in that town. From all this the Committee concluded that the class of people whom these societies were anxious to obtain as foster-parents to the children whom they had boarded out would probably, in fact most certainly, raise considerable objection to official inspection and registration on the part of local authorities. But it was stated almost invariably that they would welcome visits from ladies on behalf of local committees, with the view of exercising a sort of general supervision over the children in their charge, and of tendering advice as to their care when necessary. He might state here that all the witnesses put great stress on the fact that the inspectors under this Act should be women. The Committee fully concurred with this view, and came to the conclusion that male inspectors would probably do far more harm than good. The proposal to extend the present Act and to include all single children that were boarded out had been abandoned. There was no doubt that there might be a certain number of what were known as professional baby-farmers, who evaded the present law simply by taking in one child at one time, and no doubt it was a very desirable thing to bring such people as these under control; but, on the other hand, it was found that most of the worst characters amongst these professionals took in more than one child at a time, and therefore the worst cases would be dealt with by merely extending the age of the children whom it was proposed to register from the present limit of 12 months to five years. It was shown before the Committee, by people who had had great experience in visiting the homes of the poor and interesting themselves in charitable objects, that very large numbers of children were privately boarded out by their mothers under circumstances which would render it almost impossible for the local authority to obtain any cognisance of them, and that these children were not at all necessarily put out to nurse for the purpose of being "put away." The evidence generally showed that these children were not as a rule worse off than the foster-parents' own children, when they had them, or, in other words, the children of the same class amongst the immediate neighbours. Therefore it was believed that an inquisitorial system of inspection and registration in such cases as those was very likely to be highly objectionable and might do more harm than good. If they placed undue difficulties in the way of unfortunate mothers who might desire to place their children where they might be properly looked after when they could not, under any circumstances, keep them with themselves, they would very likely drive this system of boarding-out beneath the surface, and tend to cause the very crime which they were endeavouring to prevent. It was shown that these charitable institutions and societies generally placed out the children under their charge singly, and by excluding single children from the operation of the Bill, he thought they would most probably exclude from the Act those institutions which they did not wish to interfere with. They thought it was also rather a mistake to set up too high a standard in respect of the premises in which children should be allowed to be boarded out. They thought it would only add to the difficulties which had been mentioned, and for these reasons they proposed to abandon registration altogether, and to adopt instead a system of notification to the local authorities. After all, the important thing was to know where these unfortunate children were and who were the people who were in the habit of taking them in for profit or reward. It was important to know this in order that the local authorities might be able to have some sort of supervision over them. They thought, therefore, that notification merely would probably meet the case in a much better way than registration, which had not been very largely taken advantage of. There was one clause which he regretted extremely the Committee did not see their way to adopt—the only important clause upon which the Committee were not practically unanimous. It was the clause which made it an illegal offence for anybody who had taken a child for profit or reward to hand it on to another person without either the leave of the local authorities or notifying the fact. It was felt that, as they had abandoned the provisions of the Bill dealing with the boarding-out of single children, it would be practically impossible to prevent a person having the charge of a single child from handing it on, or, at all events, it would be very difficult to make such an offence. All the same he regretted extremely that they had not been able to devise a method for dealing with that very nefarious branch of the traffic in children which he might call the "railway station" traffic. The practice which obtained in so many cases was for a woman, who was regularly engaged in the business and received a considerable sum herself, to take these children to a railway station or some other public place and to hand them over to another person, and that other person to still another, until the child was practically lost to sight, and no one could pretend to have the smallest control over it. He regretted extremely that the Committee had not been able to adopt some provision which would have the effect of dealing with that branch of the traffic. Another Bill, which had been introduced by Lord Herschell, was referred to the Committee, but, inasmuch as the Bill of the noble and learned Lord was similar to the other in most of its provisions, the Committee recommended that that Bill should be discharged, but incorporated as much as possible in the amended Bill. One important provision the Committee incorporated was to the effect that when a child was found to be improperly treated or kept in an unhealthy or improper place, the local authority should have power to compel the workhouse authorities to take charge of that child, for it was no use giving the local authorities power to remove a child in such circumstances unless some place was provided to which the child should he removed. He was aware that the Bill had no chance this Session of further progress than passing that House, but he trusted that when it was eventually passed the local authorities in the country districts would pay more attention to it than they had done to the existing Act. For the remarkable fact came out in evidence that the Metropolitan Board of Works first, and the London County Council afterwards, were the only authorities in the country who had really administered the Act with any vigour. It was possible that the prominence which had recently been given to this subject by recent crimes would induce people outside London to remember that the country districts were, as a rule, the happy hunting grounds of the persons whom they wished, by this legislation, to bring within the law. ["Hear, hear!"]


remarked that no one who had looked into this matter could fail to be struck by the fact that for 24 years we had had on the Statute-book a law on this subject which had practically been a dead letter throughout the whole of the country with the exception of the area under the control of the London County Council. Various explanations might be given for this. The real reason, however, was that it had been found by experience that the machinery provided by the existing Act was both cumbrous and ineffective, and consequently the far-reaching results which were expected from it had not been attained. The machinery of the present Bill provided that, in order that not more than one child might be kept apart from its parents for hire or reward, the house, in which the children were kept must be registered. Strong objections had been raised to the registration of houses, and in the absence of registration bad and worthless people had been able thereby the more easily to evade the law. In this Bill it was provided that notice should be given to the local authority when more than one child was taken. Large discretion would be given to the local authorities in the administration of the Act, and registration would be insisted upon in some form. In further protection of these children it was determined to raise the age of those dealt with under the Bill from 12 months to five years. Almost all the children concerned in this class of legislation were illegitimate, a fact which was established by the absolutely unanimous testimony of coroners, inspectors, nurses, and workers among the poor. It might be said that their first need in dealing with a matter of this kind was to know the proportion of illegitimate to legitimate children in the death-rate of the country; but it was a subject of great surprise to the Committee, as it would doubtless be to their Lordships, that no information on that point was furnished to the public by the office of the Registrar General. He trusted that one result of the Debate would be that returns might be obtained, tabulated, and published, on this point, for the information would be valuable. ["Hear, hear!"] Some conjectural figures, however, had been obtained. For instance, in London last year there were 2,119 inquests held on children under one year of age, and if the proportion of illegitimate children among their was the same as that given for the country, the number would he 90, but as a matter of fact the number was 392. Again, in Manchester, in the three years from 1891 to 1894, while 17 per cent. of the children who died under one year of age were legitimate, no less than 39 per cent. were illegitimate. In fact, anyone who looked into the facts would find that the figures relating to the mortality of illegitimate children were simply appalling. This was the class of children they wanted to protect. They wanted to protect them, not merely from murder, and murder of the sensational kind that attracted public attention, but from the far more common, though not less terrible death, to which many of the children were condemned by the long course of suffering and ill-usage to which they were exposed in the earliest years of life. Doubtless, the actual number of such awful crimes of child murder as those which had recently horrified the country was very small, but he ventured to believe that the occasional occurrence of such crimes had one result—namely, to awaken everyone to a sense of the evils and dangers that affected large numbers of children in the country. ["Hear, hear!"] They aimed at rendering difficult the quiet doing to death, not necessarily with criminal intent, of children who were specially helpless. At whose door was it that the blame really lay for the large number of deaths such as those to which he had referred? Primarily, of course, at the door of the foster-parents who had the children to nurse. But everyone who had borne witness on this subject agreed that the number of deaths due to actual crime was as nothing to that due to sheer ignorance, carelessness and poverty, and therefore it was not possible to lay the whole blame at the door of those who were driven, often by their poverty, to do evil to their children. It was not possible to say that the blame rested wholly at the door of the mothers, who often did the best they could for the children. It would be vain indeed to disguise the fact that no small share of the responsibility ought to rest upon the fathers of the children. He mentioned these facts lest it should be supposed they had got at the root of the matter. They desired to prevent baby-farming by making it impossible to take more than one child under five years of age for hire or reward without giving notice to the local authority; and, on the other hand, they had endeavoured so to word the provisions of the Bill as not to increase the difficulty of an unmarried mother. The Bill could not pass this Session, but he thought real benefit would accrue if its provisions were thoroughly considered and criticised outside the House as well as within its walls before it was reintroduced next year. ["Hear, hear!"]


said the object of the Bill was one of which, of course, they all approved, but there was one point to which he wished to refer. The right rev. Prelate said that the former Act had been a dead letter. He hoped he was not too great a pessimist when he said he was afraid that this Bill would be a dead letter too. A great many philanthropic Acts had been passed, and nothing more had been heard of them. Why? Because no efficient machinery had been provided for carrying them out. It was provided that it should be the duty of every local authority to provide for the execution of the Act, but he could not see any provision for enforcing the duty upon the local authorities. They "may" appoint female inspectors, but he was afraid that in the majority of cases they would not appoint them. Local authorities were extremely afraid of new bodies of inspectors, because they meant the payment of money or fresh burdens upon the rates. To put an end to the iniquitous system of baby-farming was a matter of national importance, and, therefore, District Councils would say that the duties under the Bill ought not to be cast upon them. He was greatly afraid that, unless they provided for payment by the whole community, the Act would not, as a general result, be put in force.


desired to follow a little further the train of thought pursued by the noble Lord, to which it seemed to him it was very desirable the House should pay some attention. He did not think the noble Lord was correct in saying there were no resources provided by the Bill.


The clauses seem to me to be of a permissive nature.


Clause 3 provides that "It shall be the duty of every local authority to provide for the execution of this Act within its district," and Clause 8 provides that "All expenses incurred by or on behalf of the local authority in and about the execution of this Act shall be defrayed out of the local rate."


said his point was that, after saying it was their duty, they were told they "may" appoint inspectors. They "may" not appoint inspectors, and, not having appointed inspectors, nothing would be done.


thought that here again was displayed one of the ingenious plans which the lawyers had devised for preventing the laity from understanding what they were doing. His fear was exactly the same as that of the noble Lord—namely, that the Act, the object of which was excellent, would really be paralysed by the fact that the payment would be placed upon those who would resent the obligation as a great injustice. It was not merely that the cost was placed upon the local rate when it was a matter of public concern, but it was placed precisely upon the rate of that part of the country which had no concern in the performance of this particular duty. Illegitimate children were produced in London, and they were sent into the country to be hidden or to be brought up. It was not the place that sent them, but the place to which they were sent which was to pay for the supervision which these proceedings required. He thought that when it came to asking a small rural District Council to provide male and female inspectors in order that all the children that were brought to all cottages might be duly registered, they would come across that sturdy resistance of English yeomen to unjust taxation that had baffled the ingenuity of Parliament again and again; they would distinctly refuse to have placed on their shoulders a burden they ought not to bear, but which ought to be borne by those richer districts which furnished the children. He did not in the least desire to criticise the Bill with any indication that the machinery was unnecessary or in the least extravagant, or that the object of the Bill was unworthy of the effort which its authors had made. On the contrary, he believed it was a philanthropic object to which all their assistance and sympathy should be given. But why go to the rates? Why not boldly face the Treasury in its den? The Treasury was the body which ought to pay, and, if it would not do so, let them ask the House of Commons to make it pay. It was the business of the guardians of the public purse, the Treasury in the first instance and the House of Commons in the second instance, to see that sufficient money was provided for performing those acts of due philanthropy and for the protection of life which were the first objects for which a civilised community existed. If the Treasury should frown, as it sometimes would, at all events the responsibility would be with that Department. He objected to the attempt to evade this difficulty by placing the burden on the already overburdened ratepayer, who was the last person on whom this obligation ought to be placed.


observed that the subject to which the Bill related could hardly be viewed as a local matter. This was a Measure auxiliary to the criminal law, one of the objects of the Bill being to prevent a class of crime unfortunately not uncommon. The prosecution of criminals was not now treated as a purely local matter, and proceedings under this legislation might fairly enough be treated as matters of national importance. But he would point out that the course suggested by the noble Marquess was one that could not be taken in that House. Perhaps the Government at an early period next Session would reintroduce this Bill with the modification to which the noble Marquess had referred.


said that the Measure, if it was to be taken up by the Government, would have to wait until all the other Bills to which they were pledged should have been disposed of.


said that the Members of the Select Committee that had considered the Bill would only be too happy if the Government would undertake to reintroduce the Measure themselves. The Committee had had two local Bills to consider, both of which provided for the payment of expenses out of the local rates. Whilst considering the present Bill, they found that if they attempted to strengthen it by making registration compulsory, they would be likely to increase the very evil that they wished to cure, and they therefore rejected the registration system, which might inflict great hardship on unfortunate women who had been wronged. The evidence adduced on behalf of benevolent societies showed that the work which it was intended to do under this Bill was largely done by voluntary effort. In Manchester, for example, there was hardly a part of the town that was not visited by most devoted ladies, who extended to these unfortunate children all the protection that any Act of Parliament could extend to them. The Committee held that there ought to be no interference with that benevolent work. They thought, however, that no harm would be done by requiring notice to be given in cases where more than one child was kept for hire or reward. They did not expect that any great good could be done by this legislation. Certainly, it would not do as much good as was done by benevolent societies-Let them legislate as they would, he did not believe that they could make local authorities carry their Acts into effect. Practically, most parts of the country would not have the means to do so. The Bill submitted to their Lordships by the Committee was one which they knew could do no harm, and which they thought might do some good.


, representing the Home Office, said that the evidence laid before the Committee was practically conclusive on the point that it was not desirable to extend the provisions of the Bill to cases where only one child was kept. The very framers of the Bill, the officials of the London County Council themselves, admitted, after hearing the evidence, that such an extension of the provisions of the Measure would do more harm than good. The other alteration in the Bill was the susbtitution of the system of notice for the system of registration. The evidence showed that although registration was not objected to in certain cases, the people who took these children would mostly prefer not to have their names put upon a register which would include the professional baby-farmers. That, no doubt, was a sentiment which ought to be respected. He believed that the system of notice was more likely to be efficacious than the system which it was proposed to repeal had been. As to the difficulty of inducing the District Councils to carry the Bill into operation, he would only say that the District Council was chosen as the authority because it was the body that was given the power under the Act of 1888. Whilst the Home Secretary gave a general approval to the provisions of the Bill, he reserved his right to move Amendments for the purpose of rendering the Bill more workable. But as it was admitted that the Measure could not be carried further this Session, such Amendments need not be moved now.


observed that the Select Committee had considered the point as to the difficulty of inducing local authorities to provide the necessary funds. He wished to say, however, that it was not only local authorities whom it was difficult to get money out of. He had asked the Home Office to consent to give certificates in favour of institutions whose methods of proceeding could be inquired into, with a view of exempting them from the operation of the Bill, and he had met with a refusal on the ground of the extra expense that such a course would entail. If next Session the Government should think fit that the subject with which the Bill dealt should be treated as a matter of national and not merely local concern, the promoters of the Measure would be ready to adopt the proposal.

Bill considered in Committee accordingly; the Amendments proposed by the Select Committee made.


explained that in saying nothing on the Amendments he had been influenced by the dominant fact that the Bill would go no further this Session.

Bill re-committed to the Standing Committee.