HL Deb 16 July 1903 vol 125 cc820-4


Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


My Lords, I do not wish to enter into any detailed explanation of this Bill, which has come up to your Lordships' House after passing through all its stages in another place, including a most exhaustive threshing out in Standing Committee. The Bill deals with rather an unpleasant subject, but at the same time it is one the seriousness of which cannot be questioned. There is one point in the Bill which I should like to mention at once. In Clause 1, line 7, the word "step-daughter" occurs, but if your Lordships think fit to read the Bill a second time to-day I shall ask leave, in Committee, to delete this word and thereby to confine the operation of the Bill to blood relations. The object is to punish as a misdemeanour what is one of the most horrible and unnatural crimes conceivable, but which at present is no crime at all according to English law.

Since the Restoration the punishment of this crime has been left to what has been described as the "feeble coercion of the ecclesiastical Courts." Incest is, at present, only a crime by ecclesiastical law; it is not a crime under the criminal law. I am sure I am not saying too much when I assert that their most strenuous advocates will not claim that the ecclesiastical Courts are a proper tribunal to deal with such cases. It is an undoubted fact that this offence is committed. I have made careful enquiries in many directions and have ascertained from many people who have had experience both in large towns and rural districts that cases do very often occur. I was talking only this afternoon to a minister of the Roman Catholic Church who has had very great experience on the other side of the river, in Southwark. He tells me that cases are frequently coming to his notice. I have also had a conversation with a magistrate in the County of Essex, and he says he has known of three undoubted cases of incest. There are many others which must occur, and yet there is absolutely no power of dealing with them criminally. In Scotland, ever since 1857, a punishment has been provided for this offence, and, indeed, until 1887 the punishment by law was death. I believe that in practice the punishment was generally penal servitude, and I have ascertained, in the course of the few researches I have made, that last century there was one case of penal servitude for life. I might mention, further, that many States in the United States of America also recognise incest as a criminal offence, but it is to the Scottish example that I appeal chiefly. If it is a crime in Scotland it should be so in England. We do already indirectly recognise it as a crime in this country, for incest is one of the aggravations which enable a wife to divorce her husband. This Bill is only really a logical and practical extension of this partial recognition, and I trust that it will commend itself on its merits to your Lordships. The passing of this measure into law would act as a most salutary preventive, and I do not believe that as a result of its passing, the halfpenny newspapers would endeavour to make fortunes by spreading detailed reports of criminal cases under this Bill. There are countless laws on the Statute-book whose whole operation is indirect, and whose very existence acts as a deterrent. It is because I believe that this Bill, if; passed, would have a similar effect, that I ask your Lordships to read it a second time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)


My Lords, I regret very much that the nature of this Bill is one which renders it repulsive to everybody to discuss it. I confess that I think that if the law which has prevailed for some centuries on the subject is to be altered some greater case ought to have been presented to your Lordships for so doing. The noble Earl says, I have no doubt quite accurately, that he has made private inquiry. But surely that is not the mode by which a complete alteration of the criminal law is to be justified. I believe that legislation of this character is calculated to do an infinite amount of mischief. The noble Earl says he is confident that certain newspapers will not make capital out of these cases. I do not know where his confidence comes from. It strikes me that anything of this sort would be eagerly grasped by some portion of the Press, who make these things more public than they otherwise would be. I wish to do every credit to the noble Earl and those who are acting with him, but I cannot help thinking that it is zeal without knowledge. Everyone who is familiar with the administration of the criminal law is well aware that the publicity given to an offence at one Assize Court produces a crop of similar offences at other Assizes; and these are cases which it is inadvisable to drag into the light of day. I do think that it is a reflection on the beginning of the twentieth century that it should be thought necessary to deal with this matter at all. I cannot help thinking that it has not been sufficiently discussed, or the other House would not have rashly passed such a Bill without some evidence as to the necessity for it. I confess that I am very much impressed by the wisdom of the view on these subjects which Tacitus ascribed to the Germans—Diversitas supplicii illuc respicit, tanquam scelera ostendi oporteat, dum puniuntur, flagitia abscondi. That is, I believe, the truer view of what ought to be done in this matter, and it is with reluctance, because I believe I shall be running counter to the opinions of some whose views are worthy of con sideration, but with a strong sense of duty, that I move that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.

Amendment moved— To omit the word 'now' in order to insert the words. 'this day six months.'"—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, nobody can deny that an offence not only against morality and decency but against every instinct of human nature is one which is fit to be dealt with by the criminal law if such a course were expedient; but I confess that I share the doubts which have been expressed by my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack whether it is expedient at the present time, or at any time, except in peculiar circumstances, to pass this Bill. There is no one in this House who has had a larger experience of the administration of the criminal law than my noble and learned friend, and, so far as my much more limited knowledge and information go, I should agree with him that to ventilate a subject of this kind by means of prosecutions is likely to do a great deal more harm than good. I do not understand that there is any evidence that this offence is becoming more common, or that it has become necessary for any reason to deal with it in a different manner from that in which it has been dealt with up to the present time. If any such case were made out, of course your Lordships would have to consider it, but in the absence of any evidence of that kind I do not think the existing law should be altered.


Recognising the force of the objections which have been urged against the Bill by the two noble and learned Lords, who, of course, are the best judges in this matter, I shall not trouble your Lordships to divide upon the Bill.


My Lords, I desire to say a single word, not on the merits of the Bill, but on the position in which the House has been placed by the action of the Government with regard to this Bill. The Bill has not been initiated by the noble Earl. It was brought forward in the other House and was sent to the Grand Committee, where it was carefully considered, and the Law Officers of the Crown and the Home Office must have had opinions upon it. It is hardly fair to your Lordships' House for the Government to have allowed the Bill to go so far if there are such strong objections against it as have been urged by the two noble and learned Lords who have spoken.

Motion, by leave of the House, withdrawn.