HL Deb 29 June 1899 vol 73 cc952-7


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, several causes have contributed to induce the Local Government Board to introduce this Bill. The Departmental Committee on Poor Law Schools urged the Government to give Guardians of the Poor larger powers over children supported out of the rates than they possessed under the Act of 1889, and a Bill to that effect has been twice introduced into the House of Commons by Mr. Flower. That Bill has been supported by communications to the Local Government Board from over 200 Boards of Guardians, but as the Bill is not making progress, the Local Government Board have thought it wise to introduce a Bill themselves in your Lordships' House. The Act of 1889 gave guardians power, where a child was maintained out of the rates and had been deserted by its parent, to retain the child under their control until sixteen years of age in the case of a boy, and eighteen years of age in the case of a girl. Where, too, a parent had been imprisoned for some offence, such as cruelty to a child, the child might be taken under the control of the guardians. The Bill which I am now asking your Lordships to read a second time enlarges those powers, and enables guardians to take charge of a child in cases where they are of opinion that by reason of mental deficiency, habits, or mode of life, the parent is unfit to have the control of it, and in cases where a parent has been sentenced to imprisonment in respect of any offence against any of his or her children. Under the Act of 1889, guardians could only take control of the child whose parent was suffering imprisonment for cruelty in respect of that child, but under this Bill the guardians will be able to take charge of any of the children of such a parent, and of the children of a parent who is permanently bedridden or disabled, or is the inmate of a workhouse, and consents to the guardians having control. They may also take charge of a child whose parents, or, in the case of an illegitimate child, the mother of the child, are or is dead. These are the alterations in the Act of 1889 which this Bill proposes. Your Lordships will understand that it applies only to those children who are being supported out of the rates, and that the guardians may at any time rescind the resolution if they think it will be for the benefit of the child that it should be so rescinded. A court of summary jurisdiction, if satisfied, on complaint made by a parent, or, if there is no parent, by a guardian of a child, that there was no ground for the resolution, has also power to determine the resolution. As I have already informed your Lordships, the Act of 1889 applies to boys up to the age of sixteen, and girls up to the age of eighteen. Clause 2 of this Bill will make it apply to children of both sexes up to the age of eighteen, and, if the children consent themselves, within three months of arriving at the age of eighteen, they may be kept under the control of the guardians up till the age of twenty-one. Clause 3 provides a penalty in cases where persons endeavour to tempt children away from the control of the guardians. The object of that clause is to prevent undesirable relatives, who are not fit to have the control of children, from endeavouring to tempt children away. In Clause 4, which relates to rather a different subject, power is given to the guardians to visit those young persons for whom they have obtained situations as servants, and whom they have apprenticed, wherever they may be, up to the age assigned. Under the present Act they can only visit the children if they are still in the situation that was first found for them. Under this Bill they can be visited so long as they are within the union, or within a short distance of the union, whether they are in the place of first service or not. Clause 5 provides that Section 4 of the Pauper Inmates Discharge and Regulation Act, 1871, shall be amended by increasing the power of guardians to call for a longer notice of discharge where a pauper is constantly in the habit of discharging himself without sufficient reason from the workhouse. Under the present Act, where a pauper has discharged himself from a workhouse twice within a month, he has to give 72 hours' notice when he desires his discharge. The Bill proposes that where a pauper discharges himself more frequently without sufficient reason the guardians may call for a still longer notice—namely, 168 hours. In such a case it will be necessary for a direction to be entered in the minutes specifying the name of the pauper to whom it applies. These are the provisions of the Bill. They have been strongly supported by various bodies, including a large number of boards of guardians, and I trust that, under the circumstances, your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."


My Lords, I have no reason to say anything against the principle on which this Bill is founded, but I think some of its provisions will require careful consideration in Committee. I may not understand the Bill correctly, but it appears that its provisions are to take effect when one parent has misbehaved. The husband may have run away and deserted a child, but the mother may remain and be perfectly fit to take care of it. I certainly think the Bill will have to be scrutinised hereafter, probably in the Standing Committee, but the general object is an excellent one. I feel very great doubt as to Clause 4. This clause provides that, when a young person has been placed cut in service from a workhouse, the visits to that young person which the guardians may make shall not only continue during the time that the young person is in the service to which he or she was first sent, but shall continue afterwards when the child shall have gone to another situation.


Within the union.


Of course. It seems to me that if there is one thing more desirable than another it is to remove, as soon as possible, from children who have gone out into the world all recollection of their having been paupers. I think this provision in the Bill is open to considerable objection. If a child goes back to the guardians and is again placed out by them, it is perfectly reasonable that they should continue to visit, if they think it necessary; but if a young person has obtained another situation without the intervention of the guardians, and has thereby become disconnected with Poor Law administration, it is not to the advantage of the child that it should continue to be visited by the guardians. Nothing has a more deleterious effect upon a child than to ticket it as a pauper, and I think this clause of the Bill will require very careful consideration in Committee.


My Lords, I rise to support the Second Reading of this Bill, which appears to me to be more important and more far-reaching in its beneficial consequences than perhaps may be suggested by its title or by a hurried perusal of its contents. The fact that we have five Bills under our consideration in one week, three of them in charge of members of the Government, dealing with questions affecting the education of the young is not without significance as showing the interest which is at present being taken in exceptional educational problems, and I am quite sure that in no one of the matters with which these Bills deal is legislation more urgently required, though perhaps the circle within which it is to work is small, than in the cases to which the present Bill refers. Anyone who is familiar either with the administration of the Poor Law as regards children going out from workhouses into the world, or with the management of institutions, unconnected with the Poor Law, which exist for kindred objects, will know how real is the need which this Bill is intended to meet. I, for one, desire to express my gratitude to Her Majesty's Government for having taken in hand a measure which has been struggling for several years ineffectually to obtain a hearing in the House of Commons, and which I hope will now rapidly become law. It is impossible to exaggerate the distressing character of the cases which occasionally come before those who have taken charge, as far as they can, of children during this particular period in their lives. In a number of cases, children who, have been taken away from evil homes and looked after until they arrive at the age when they are old enough to earn something for themselves, have been at the first moment taken back by their relations to those homes where everything that has been learned is unlearned. If the peril is great in the case of boys, it is ten times greater and more terribly in the case of illegitimate girls of fifteen or sixteen, who are taken back under the control of a mother who is far from-having their true welfare at heart. This Bill will give wider powers to Poor Law authorities as to children whom they are able to protect, and will prolong the protection which is thus given. At present, as the noble Earl stated, desertion by the parent is a necessary preliminary too the child being taken by the guardians; but under this Bill, whether the parent has deserted the child or not, if the guardians are of opinion that the child is in unfit keeping they will be able to take it away. A parent who is unfit either owing to mental deficiency or evil habits of life may now be relieved, if I may use the word, of the responsibility of taking care of the child, and the guardians may undertake that duty, charging the cost to the parent, the understanding being that this refers only to, children who are under the Poor Law. All legislation of this kind is subject to two dangers. Either that we may be sentimentally relieving very poor parents of a control which we ought rather to help them themselves to exercise, or, on the other hand, our sympathy for children in an unhappy home may lead us to interfere illegitimately with the rights of control which parents ought to have. It seems to me that the Bill safeguards us from any probable difficulty under bath these heads. In the first place, if such parent considers he or she is unjustly treated by the child being taken away, the parent will have the right of appeal to the court, who will decide whether the guardians have been justified or not in the action they have taken. I think the force of public opinion is at present so strong with regard to the rights of parents that even in the case of parents other than those whom we should desire to see in charge of children, we need not fear that their interests or rights will be unduly interfered with. No provision in the Bill is more important than that which extends the age during which the protection of the guardians may last. At present girls become free from the control of the guardians on reaching the age of eighteen, and boys on reaching the age of sixteen; but under this Bill both sets of children will be under the control of the guardians till the age of eighteen, and if, three months before that, when they are perfectly able to judge for themselves, they desire to remain for three years longer under the protection of the authority which has taken charge of them hitherto, they will be able to do so. The Bill, which is drawn on eminently practical and wise lines, does not yield merely to a sentimental cry, but meets a real need, and I trust your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

On question, agreed to.

Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.