HL Deb 05 March 1900 vol 80 cc4-13

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have some confidence that this Bill will receive not only your unanimous but your cordial support. The object of the measure as proposed now for Second Reading is to keep young children out of prison, and thereby not only to relieve them from a punishment oftentimes of a most severe and injurious character, but also, it is hoped, to diminish the numbers, of the criminal class. It is gratifying, of course, to know how great has been the diminution of crime of late years. If we take the twenty years from 1878 to 1898, the number of persons convicted for indictable offences at assizes and quarter sessions fell from 16,000 to 11,000, whilst from 1880 to 1898 the number of summary convictions fell by as many as 10,000. Various causes have contributed to bring about this result—the prosperity of the country, full employment, increased wages, the lower price of provisions, education, and greater sympathy between the classes. All these have tended to diminish the number of the criminal class. But still there is opportunity for doing much more to check the supply of habitual offenders, and it is for that purpose that this Bill is designed. The habitual offender is a difficult person to deal with. It is most difficult to effect a complete change in his habit of life, but if we can stop the supply to this class, if we accept the old Latin saying that: "It is better to seek the fountain than intercept the rivulets," we shall thereby diminish the recruiting power of the criminal class, and gradually prevent the habitual offender coming into existence at all. The object of this Bill is to substitute a punishment other than that of imprisonment upon young persons under sixteen years of age. A great deal has been done in this direction of late years, but still something remains to be done. During 1899 177 children under fourteen years of age, many of them under twelve years of age, were committed to prison, and they have remained in prison for seven and fourteen days, and even six weeks, for offences which I do not think could be judged to represent crime at all. In 1879 my noble friend Lord Cross, who was then Home Secretary, passed through the Legislature a valuable measure called the Summary Jurisdiction Act. By that Act magistrates have the power to substitute for imprisonment the punishment of whipping upon children in respect of certain offences—only some three or four are mentioned in the schedule of that Act. In the Bill which was introduced last year by the Government it was proposed to extend that power, not only to the offences mentioned in the Act of 1879, but to all indictable offences except murder and manslaughter. That Bill received your Lordships' approval, but did not pass through the House of Commons. It is somewhat remarkable that, whilst that Bill was proceeding through your Lordships' House, a Bill came up from the House of Commons, introduced by Mr. Bryn Roberts, in which it was proposed that certain indictable offences should be dealt with summarily by the magistrates. The power was extended to cases of larceny, embezzlement, and false pretences. I took advantage, on behalf of the Home Office, of that Bill, but I was only able to deal, in that Bill, with indictable offences, and a clause was inserted and approved by this House by which the power of whipping young persons under fourteen years of age was given in respect of all indictable offences. That is how the law stands under the Act of last year, the two exceptions being the offences of murder and manslaughter. As the measure dealt with indictable offences only, I felt that there was no power to deal in that Bill with summary offences. Therefore the law is in the anomalous position that, while a magistrate can inflict the punishment of whipping in lieu of imprisonment on young offenders convicted of the most serious indictable offences, he has not the power of so dealing with summary convictions. What is the result? The Legislature has of recent years extended the power of local authorities to make bye-laws to regulate the different localities over which those bodies have control. These bye-laws refer to the proper control of traffic, etc., and some of them deal with such venial offences as playing football in the streets. Infringements of these bye-laws by children cannot be called crimes; yet, in default of payment of fines, children brought before the magistrate for offences of this kind have to be sent to prison for days and even weeks. The magistrate has no power to inflict the punishment of whipping upon a child who commits an offence of this kind, whereas he can do so in the case of a boy convicted of burglary and other indictable offences. To send a child of timid disposition to prison is a terrible punishment. I may mention to your Lordships, as I did in introducing this Bill last year, that the Home Office have received complaints from time to time that the screams of the children throughout the night have prevented the other prisoners from getting any sleep. A complaint on the matter was made by certain defendants who were sent to Holloway in respect of affairs in South Africa, and the Home Office have ordered that the cells in which children are confined shall have doors so constructed that they shall be able to see into the corridor and so get rid of the alarm caused by being placed from six o'clock in the evening till six o'clock in the morning in a dark cell without being able to see anything. If the child is not timid and frightened, if he is disposed to resist the cruelty of his punishment, he becomes hardened and accustomed to prison life, and it ceases to have any terror for him. It is from such that the class to whom I have referred, the habitual offenders, is recruited, and thus it is that the ranks of our criminals are filled up and still continue to be far more numerous than they ought to be. I have explained to your Lordships the particular object of this Bill. There may be some who object to the infliction of the punishment of flogging. There are men who think that flogging is not a wise punishment, and that it amounts to cruelty; but the punishment suggested in this Bill is of a kind which cannot cause any suggestion to be made that it represents cruelty. It is a punishment of the mildest character, regulated according to the age of the child, and it must be inflicted in the presence of the child's parent or guardian. Such will be the main result of the Bill, but other matters have to be dealt with too. Great difficulty is experienced in the case of remands. Take the case of a young child of 11 or 12 years of age. The magistrate has to deal with him, but as witnesses are not present a remand is necessary. What is to be done? At once you get the infliction of the punishment of imprisonment if you remand the child to prison, and all the evils which are sought to be guarded against in this Bill come into play. What this Bill proposes is that the magistrate shall have the power, if it is necessary to remand a youthful offender in order to determine whether he shall be committed for trial or punished or not, of placing him in the custody of a married constable or any fit person willing to receive him. It is a sort of criminal out-door relief. The person to whom the child is entrusted will be answerable for his re-appearance when the period of remand expires. This proposal necessitates a little expenditure, for which the parent may be made answerable, but, failing that, I am glad to say that on this occasion the Treasury have not interfered in the exercise of the powers of the Constitution, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed to the payment of 6s. a week in respect of each child so treated. This proposal will not only prove of great advantage to the child, but also to the prison authorities, for nothing can interfere more with the good government of our prisons than the sending to them of these young children. There is one other important clause which will probably require some consideration. I refer to Clause 3, which provides that if a child commits any offence, and it is proved that his parent or guardian has conduced thereto by neglect, without sufficient excuse, to exercise due control over him, the parent or guardian shall be deemed to be guilty of having contributed to the commission of the offence. It may be almost metaphysical to determine what has conduced to a child's crime, but there can, I think, be no doubt that this provision will cause parents to discharge their duty more effectually, and by restraint or example endeavour to prevent their children entering into a course of crime. There are several minor provisions in the Bill which I think will be useful. For instance, in Clause 5 a court of assize or quarter sessions is given the like power of committing a child to an industrial school as may be exercised by two justices under Section 15 of the Industrial Schools Act, 1866. There are other provisions which will meet with the approval of your Lordships, and need not be discussed in detail. When a child is convicted of an offence so slight that the magistrate sees no need to send him to prison, and inflicts the slight corporal punishment provided in this Bill, that shall not be regarded as a conviction of felony at all, and the child will not have the disqualification throughout his life of having been convicted for felony whilst very young. I hope your Lordships will regard this as a valuable portion of that class of legislation which is effecting much good by so amending our criminal procedure that in the end we may derive the benefit of seeing the criminal classes in this country greatly diminished.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(Lord James of Hereford.)


My Lords, I think the House will agree with all the noble Lord has said as to the cruelty of sending a little child to prison; but there was one expression which fell from him to which some of us demur. I allude to the statement in which he referred to the mildness of the punishment of whipping. I am glad to find, by Clause 1 of the Bill, that a child under twelve is not to receive more than twelve strokes with the birch rod; but would it not be more humane to say that no child under eight or nine years of age should be whipped at all? Eighteen strokes is the maximum number which can be inflicted on a boy of any age, but I regard that number as rather too high. Noble Lords who were at Eton will remember that no one had more than twelve. I remember that twelve well. I would ask the noble and learned Lord whether the maximum number in the Bill might not be reduced.


This is one of the most important Bills that has been before your Lordships' House for some time. It deals with a subject upon which I can speak with some knowledge, and I desire to express my gratitude to the noble and learned Lord for having intro- duced it. I have taken an interest for over half a century in the treatment of youthful offenders, since the first legislation about it, and I am informed by the police that the reformatory I established in the neighbourhood of Birmingham, the second after that of Red Hill, has "broken up," to use their own expression, the nursery of crime in the city of Birmingham. My noble friend has in this Bill hit two or three important points on which the law is at present defective, and if he is able to get it through Parliament this session he will have done a very great service to the country. I can hardly conceive anyone objecting to the corporal punishment of children instead of sending them to prison. Sending children to prison is cruel and mischievous. Corporal punishment is suitable, and has a much more deterrent effect. Children will not come again for it if they can help it. It is the right mode of treating them. The Bill most importantly recognises the fact that in ninety-nine cases out of every 100 the parents are the chiefly guilty persons, and I welcome Clause 3 of the Bill, which makes the parent or guardian liable for offences committed by the child. Although children must be punished if they commit an offence, you can hardly say that they are solely guilty. I think there are very few of your Lordships, if in infancy you had been turned out into the streets to earn your livelihood by picking pockets, who would not have gone as far astray as the children who get into our reformatories and industrial schools. This Bill seems to take a bold but wise step in making the parent, unless he can give sufficient excuse, liable for having contributed to the commission of the offence. In recent years the State has placed itself far too much in loco parentis towards children, thus relieving parents of their proper responsibility. I therefore rejoice that the Bill makes parents, to some extent, answerable for the offences of their children. I think it is also wise that power is to be given to the magistrate to order that fines imposed on the parent may be applied towards compensating the person injured by the child's offence. This Bill goes a step further, and compels the parent not only to pay the cost of proceedings against the child, but to give security for the better conduct of the child in future. That was strongly recommended by the Royal Commission. The fourth clause provides that a court of Summary Jurisdiction, on remanding or committing for trial any child, may, instead of sending him during the interval to prison, make an order that he be placed in the custody of any fit person who is willing to receive him. It has always been a great puzzle to know what to do with children while on remand. At present they are sent to prison. This Bill will put an end to that practice. I think the noble and learned Lord has hit upon an excellent course in leaving it to the discretion of the magistrate to select fit persons who will take charge of the child during the short interval while waiting for trial, or finding a reformatory, or while the circumstances of the parent are being investigated. The noble and learned Lord has not referred to what, in my opinion, is one of the most important points in the Bill. I refer to Clause 6, which provides for the recovery of the expense of maintenance of a child in custody from the parent or guardian. It is important that a parent should not be able to save the expense of a child by leading it into crime; he should be made to pay as much for the maintenance of the child in a reformatory as the child would cost at home. I have even had a mother ask me how she could qualify her child to get into a reformatory and so save the expense of keeping him. At present the method of recovering the cost from the parent is rather roundabout. When the magistrate convicts a child and directs that he shall go to a reformatory, he sends to the Officer of Reformatories in London. That officer then puts himself in communication with the police on the spot, who finds out the circumstances of the parent. They then report to the Reformatory Officer in London, who decides upon the payment which shall be made, and his order goes back to the local police, and for final sanction to the magistrate. This Bill makes the process direct instead of indirect, and leaves it to the magistrates on the spot, when they convict a child and wish to send him to a reformatory, to find out through their own local police the circumstances of the parents and what they should contribute. It throws the onus on the parent of proving that he is not able to pay, instead of on the officer to show that the parent is able to pay. The mode of recovery of payment is simplified, it being made recoverable as an order of affiliation. For the first time we shall get this most important provision by this Bill. I can hardly conceive any objection being offered to the measure, and I trust that it will become law this session.


My Lords, my noble friend who has just spoken has always had such an extraordinary belief in the efficacy of whipping that I am not surprised that he views this Bill with unqualified satisfaction. I do not view it with unqualified satisfaction, nor do I view it with unqualified dissatisfaction. There is a good deal to be said both ways. There is very strong argument in favour of a Bill of this kind from the desire, which my noble friend referred to, that children should not be sent to prison. I entirely sympathise with that desire; but we must not shut our eyes to the disadvantage of and objections to a system of whipping. My noble friend has told us that once whipped twice shy, and that it will be seldom that a boy who has been whipped once will come back again. I am told on excellent authority that, at the school already referred to, where I was, a boy not altogether unconnected with this assembly, though not a member of it, came back eighteen times. I am not at all surprised at that, because I have known boys personally who did not care in the least degree how often they were whipped, and I could mention a very distinguished person, who is not present, whom I have often heard say he didn't care a fig about it. You must not suppose, therefore, that whipping is a perfectly efficacious remedy, and we should very carefully consider how far we go in this direction. I have not had personally the experience my noble friend behind me (Earl Carrington) has had, but I confess I somewhat question—I do not say that I shall oppose it—the wisdom of a maximum of eighteen strokes, because you are going to entrust the administration of this Bill to every justice throughout the country sitting in petty sessions, and any offence, however small, may be punished by whipping. I have not the least desire to decry my brother justices, who, I believe, administer the law in a manner far better than is generally ascribed to them, but in so large a body there are men of not very good judgment who take a wrong view of punishment. It is possible, for instance, that a boy poacher would be severely whipped, or that there would be some very indignant magistrate who thought that apple stealing was a very terrible crime and ordered the boy a severe whipping. If that were done, I am sure there would be an outcry against whipping. Within certain limits, however, I entirely agree that everything possible should be done to prevent children being sent to prison, and I do think that for smaller boys whipping is the appropriate punishment, if not too severe. I welcome the provision by which boys who are going to reformatories will not be sent to prison. I shall abstain from going into the different clauses now, because the Bill will no doubt go to the Standing Committee, where it will be reasonably judged and brought into a form in which it will work well.


My Lords, I should like to add a further word of thanks to the noble and learned Lord for introducing this Bill. The recognition which both sides of the House have given to his action must naturally cause him to feel that he is right in believing that this Bill, though a small one, may be far-reaching in its consequences. The noble Earl, the Leader of the Opposition, seems to me to have overlooked, in his criticisms, a most important point. The remarks of the noble Earl as to the danger of unwise or over-severe justices whipping a boy who perhaps did not deserve so severe a chastisement may possibly be deserved. But what is the alternative? It is only in the case of boys who might otherwise be sent to prison that this clause operates. Does the noble Earl mean to say that it is better that a little boy should be sent to prison for six months? To my mind, if in after life a boy be any the worse for a mistaken whipping, ten thousand times more will he be the worse for having gone to prison for six months, which is the alternative. I cannot express too strongly my approval of the provision that a boy or a girl should no longer have to be sent to prison on the way to a reformatory. Nothing can be more mischievous in after life than that stamp, even apart from its direct and immediate danger, and the provision in this Bill seems, so far as one can judge, exactly calculated to meet that particular difficulty, and to take away what has hitherto been a heart-breaking cause of sorrow to not a few of those who are interested in young offenders. I believe that if the Bill becomes law, which I hope will be the case very shortly, it will effect an untold amount of good.

On Question, agreed to; Bill read 2ªaccordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Monday next.