HL Deb 29 March 1897 vol 47 cc1529-35

in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, reminded their Lordships that last Session, at the instance of the London County Council, he introduced a Bill for the purpose of amending the existing law, dealing with the protection of infant life, with a view of making it rather less of a dead letter than it unfortunately was at the present moment, except in the area administered by the London County Council. As the law now stood the registration of houses where infants were kept was only required in cases where more than one infant of less than twelve months old were maintained, therefore anybody could take in One child of less than twelve months, and any number of a greater age. In such cases nothing could be done by the local authorities or anybody else. It was important to remember that it was not merely ill-treatment and neglect which caused a great amount of mortality amongst infants, but it was the mere aggregation of a large number of small children under one roof which caused a mortality so truly distressing. The Bill of last Session was introduced with the view of extending the age and making it apply to cases where only one child was kept, and was referred to a Select Committee of their Lordships' House, over which he had the honour of presiding. A considerable amount of searching evidence was taken from philanthropic people and charitable societies, and also from several of the London coroners who had had a considerable amount of experience in the administration of the existing law. As a result it was decided to abolish the proposal for the registration of houses, and to insist merely on notification being given to the local authorities where it was decided to maintain such infants, so that there should be no interference with existing charitable and voluntary societies which, in many instances, put out children to nurse with foster parents, and did a great deal of good in that way. It was also decided that notification should be insisted upon in places where only one infant was maintained. There were two classes of people who now engaged in the bringing up of children not their own. There were many who took them in from a pure neighbourly feeling when children were left suddenly without parents. Others were taken in by foster parents who were engaged by charitable societies and philanthropic individuals, but over and above these there were what he might call the professionals—those who had children handed over to them at railway stations with the payment of a considerable lump sum, who passed the children through various hands till they were lost sight of and, in most cases, ultimately made away with. There were also extreme cases, such as that which occupied so much attention last year of the unfortunate woman, Mrs. Dyer, who took in children partly with the view of deliberately murdering them, and also with the idea of gradually starving them to death by neglect and cruelty. It was only those professionals there was any desire to deal with under an amended law, too many of whom carried on their trade with impunity. It was necessary in the interests of humanity to do something to amend the present law, under which it was practically impossible to deal with many cases that occurred, or to make provision against the Act being evaded in every possible particular. If their Lordships read the Bill a Second time, and ultimately passed it a great many cases which now evaded the law would be brought within its scope, and much of the mortality which now prevailed would be stopped. Objection was raised to the Bill last year on the ground that it was too much of a permissive nature. He thought, however, it was absolutely necessary to make it permissive to a certain extent, because if they made it too obligatory in the rural districts it would be regarded as a great hardship inasmuch as those districts would be put to a considerable amount of expense for the purpose of looking after children who were brought into those districts from other localities. If the Bill was now read a Second time he should be perfectly willing in Committee to accept any Amendments which might be proposed with a view to making the Measure more workable. There might be questions, such as which was the best authority for the purpose of administering the Bill. In England the promoters had suggested that the authorities should be the District Councils. Others preferred boards of guardians, but he had a perfectly open mind on the subject, and was prepared to accept whichever authority was considered by those who had experience to be the better. He begged to move that the Bill be read a Second time.


in supporting the Motion, observed that the Bill had precisely the same object in view as that which became an Act 25 years ago, but, as had been already said, that Act had ever since its birth been a dead letter. Now, if an Act of Parliament with the object of which everyone, he presumed, sympathised, had for 25 years been a dead letter, it must be for one of two reasons: either that the object aimed at had been attained in another way, or that the machinery proposed by the Act for attaining that object was found cumbrous and unworkable. Unhappily it was clear that the object aimed at had not been secured. That the present machinery on the other hand had been found cumbrous and unworkable was amply shown by the noble Earl himself in the Debate of last year, and it was easy to amplify evidence of it if necessary. But practically no evidence was necessary when they considered that with the exception of the London County Council, the Bill had not been put in operation in any part of England. The novel machinery proposed by the present Bill was the result of very careful consideration and thought, and would with a minimum of personal hardship, a minimum of administrative friction, and what was also important, a minimum of public expense, bring about, he believed, the result they all desired. That object was the better protection of infant life. He presumed that many persons when they heard that word jumped at once to the conclusion that the object of the Bill was to put down the sort of horror to which the noble Lord alluded—those great baby-farming cases which now and then sprang to light, and at which England stood aghast. But he believed the Bill would have little effect in that direction; nor did he believe that any legislation could be introduced which would make much difference in that particular unless it were what the Prime Minister had described as of such a Draconian character as to hurt a hundred innocent people for every criminal brought to justice. Those persons were already defying every law, human and divine, and it was not by passing a Bill of this sort they could bring their wickedness to an end. But those black horrors were insignificant compared with the slow, the unostentatious, and the lingering sufferings which were being inflicted by foster parents, often in sheer ignorance, sometimes, he feared, in callous indifference, all over England upon infant lives that were intrusted to their care. What was proposed in the Bill would, he believed, go far to bring to an end some of the ill-deeds which were thus, partly from ignorance and partly from indifference, being perpetrated, and would do it in a practically efficient manner. In the forefront of this question stood the fact that nearly all the children whom they were thus called upon to protect were illegitimate. Illegitimate children were the most unprotected of all unprotected folk, and he did not believe the country was in the least aware what was the proportion at this moment of illegitimate children who died before they were 12 month old. If they had the statistics before them, he believed England would be appalled, and he confessed it did seem to him discreditable to their official returns that the statistics were not tabulated so that the true proportion of such infant mortality should be known. The fact were all there, ready to hand, in Somerset House. when an infant died, its death was duly registered as legitimate or illegitimate, and though they were furnished annually with a return of the number of illegitimate births, there was nothing in the public tables given them with regard to the number of illegitimate infants whose deaths were thus registered that it was necessary they should have such information was obvious, when by such inferential or incidental means as were at their disposal they got at the facts at all. They had means for getting at all circumstances here and there. For example, in London in 1895 there were 2,119 inquests upon children under 12 months' old. The birth returns of the whole country showed them, roughly speaking, that one birth in every 25 was illegitimate. If the mortality were anything like equal between legitimate and illegitimate children, 1–25th of these 2,119 inquests would be inquests on illegitimate children. That was to say, there would be 90 inquests in all on babies who were illegitimate, but instead of 90, as a matter of fact the number in 1895 was 322, showing what an appalling proportion of the suspicious mortality that took place among infants was in regard to the cases of illegitimate infants, for whom protection was so specially needed. Another bit of fact available was the following. Dr. Tatham, now head of the Statistical Department of Somerset House, and formerly Medical Officer of Manchester, had carefully tabulated the returns for the years 1891–94 for Manchester, showing the proportion of the deaths of infants under 12 months old legitimately born and illegitimately born. Of the legitimate infants the proportion was 174 per 1,000, and of the illegitimate 392 per 1,000, so that nearly 40 per cent. of the illegitimately born infants in Manchester died before they were 12 months old. This fact, even if it stood alone, appeared to him to justify a demand that statistics should be tabulated and made available for the whole of the kingdom. The facts would be found to be appalling, and much more terrible than the mere mortality was the thought of the long and horrid suffering undergone before these little lives came to an end. These deaths took place for the most part in the homes or houses of the foster parents, and in trying to apportion the blame they must, of course, lay it upon the foster mother in the first instance; but it would be found that to ignorance, carelessness, and the extreme poverty and wretchedness of the home rather than to cruelty most of the deaths were due. Again, severe blame could not always be attached to the unfortunate mother, some unhappy girl who had no thought of harming her baby, but who, earning a miserable pittance, was obliged to board out the child at the least possible expense. To him it seemed rather that the blame went further back to the father of the infant, who so often in callous selfishness shirked all responsibility; but until amendments were made in regard to the affiliation laws this could not be death with. The object now was not to apportion the blame, but to legislate as far as possible in the direction of providing a remedy for a system leading to so much suffering and infant mortality. It might be an open question who should be the authority to put this machinery in operation, but some such machinery was urgently required. ["Hear, hear!"]


expressed, on behalf of the Home Secretary, entire sympathy with the object of the Bill. The effect of the Bill would not be so much to put a stop to those dreadful cases of professional baby-farming brought to light from time to time, as to do something to prevent the suffering arising from ignorance, carelessness, and want of thought, to which that suffering was more often due than to intentional ill-treatment. The scope of the Bill was clearly defined and restricted by the Committee on the subject, and the evidence given before that Committee was conclusive as to the necessity of confining the operation of the Bill to cases where more than one child was kept under five years of age. The alteration of the system of registration to notification would be less onerous on parents, and the effect would be to encourage entries being given. Another point was of grave importance, and that was the machinery for carrying the law into effect. In the opinion of the Home Secretary there were points of difficulty in this respect, and therefore his right hon. Friend, in assenting to the Second Reading, reserved the right to suggest Amendments in Committee. He asked the noble Lord to defer the Motion for Committee until after Easter, in order that full consideration might be given to points of detail, and the Bill made more efficacious for the object with which it was introduced.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.