HL Deb 02 December 1908 vol 197 cc1407-12


Order of the Day for the Second Beading read.


My Lords, I think I shall best commend this Bill, the subject of which is of a very painful and distressing nature, by self-restraint and reserve rather than by any force of words. The object of the Bill is to make incest what it is in Scotland, what it is in a number of our Colonies, what it is in certain of the States of America and in a large number of civilised countries, but what at the present moment it is not in England—a crime.

The Bill enacts that any male person who has carnal knowledge of a female person, who is to his knowledge his granddaughter, daughter, sister, or mother, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and upon conviction thereof, shall be liable, at the discretion of the Judge of Assize, to be kept in penal servitude for any term not less than three years, and not exceeding seven years, or to be imprisoned for any time not exceeding two years with or without hard labour. All else is detail, which can be better discussed in Committee than on Second Reading. The special reason for introducing the Bill, which has already passed the House of Commons, is the great frequency of incest. It appears, from a communication made to the Home Office by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, that the society has records of no less than forty-two cases brought to their notice in the last twelve months, some of which are described as being of the most appalling nature. The Home Office, I am also informed, has been told that the Birmingham education authority know of eleven cases of persons living under these circumstances at present in that city, ten being cases of father and daughter and one of brother and sister. I am further told that, as regards cases of rape and carnal knowledge of girls which came before the Home Office on petitions for remission of sentence, it was found that in no fewer than fifty-one out of 193 cases the criminal intercourse was incestuous. Thirty-six cases have also come to the notice of the Metropolitan Police alone, and twelve to the notice of the Liverpool police.

I had hoped that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice would have been able to be present to-night to support this Bill. He is, however, detained at the Assizes at Birmingham, but he has sent me this telegram— You can state that I support the Bill. I have received and sent to the Home Secretary presentments of grand juries pointing out the urgent necessity for an amendment of the law, in consequence of the frequency of assaults by fathers on their daughters. These, my Lords, are facts which speak for themselves, and, I venture to think, justify this Bill. There are objections which might, perhaps, be taken, such as the objection to the evil of publication; but I am told that in Scotland, where incest has been a crime for more than three centuries, the newspapers treat these cases with very great discretion and that no real evil has arisen. It may be said, again, that this would offer opportunity for blackmail. I reply that this is not the experience of Scotland; and, further, if this is to be made a reason of itself against the Bill it is surely a reason also against dealing with any of the offences included in the Criminal Law Amendment Act. I venture to think that the frequency of this terrible form of crime, as I hope it will be now formally made in England, justifies this measure; and, without further language, I will move its Second Reading, in the hope that the Bill, which has passed through the other House with the good wishes of both sides, may receive similar treatment at your Lordships' hands.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord Bishop of St. Albans.)


My Lords, I think all your Lordships will agree that we owe a very great debt of gratitude to the right rev. Prelate who has just spoken. As he very rightly said, this is not a pleasant topic or one which any member of your Lordships' House would wish to discuss at length. My chief object in rising is to say that while His Majesty's Government do not think this is a matter which they would be justified in bringing to your Lordships' notice or taking full responsibility for, yet the Home Secretary and the Home Office hope that your Lordships will see your way to pass the Bill into law. They are convinced of the necessity for legislation to deal with this evil, and, there- fore, they hope the Bill may become law during the present session. I do not know that it is necessary to add much to what was said by the right rev. Prelate, but this, however, I might say. In a certain number of crimes of a similar character it might be argued that it would be desirable not to take steps with regard to them, because they affect nobody but those immediately concerned; but your Lordships will see that that is not the case with regard to crimes of this character, and that there are, as the result of intercourse between the various people mentioned in the Bill, offspring on whom the punishment chiefly falls. In these circumstances I venture to hope your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.


My Lords, the mischief aimed at by this Bill, is one which your Lordships must all admit to be a very serious and grave one; and not in this House, or I should think anywhere in the country, are there two opinions as to the desirability of reducing that mischief. But, personally, I have some little hesitation in feeling certain that a Bill which turns this particular mischief into a crime in the eyes of the law will necessarily reduce it. I do not know the statistics, but I cannot help thinking that the amount of the mischief is really very small, and that in the great majority of families in this country such a mischief as is aimed at by this Bill never enters into the heads of anyone. Newspapers may exercise, in regard to trials of this kind, a very proper discretion, but you have people in Court, the jury and neighbours, and there is the danger of something which had never entered the heads of people being put there by proceedings of this kind. I think I remember that the noble and learned Earl the ex-Lord Chancellor used sometimes to express doubts as to the wisdom of legislation of this character. I agree that this particular Bill, if it is desired to deal with the matter by legislation, is drawn in what I venture to say respectfully is, perhaps, the best possible way that it could be drawn, and meets the mischief in the best possible manner; and in the subsidiary clauses, as to the custody of the children, I am sure your Lordships must all concur. I cannot help myself feeling some doubt as to whether the measure will in the end prove remedial. The matter is one which it is obviously difficult to discuss, but I would venture to suggest that if the Bill is read a second time it should be sent to a Select Committee, so that the evidence of those who have to deal with the administration of the law may be obtained as to the best way of dealing with this matter.


My Lords, I rise to state in two or three words my own view about this matter. I do hope that, whatever the House does, it will not send this Bill to a Select Committee. That would only mean the destruction of the Bill by a side wind. If it is wrong, it is much better to throw it out now and be done with it. The question is whether this will be an effective remedy. There is no other remedy known to the law except to punish people who commit acts which are considered to be crimes. I cannot help thinking that it is better that the community should stigmatise as a crime that which is a crime in substance, seeing that it produces not only moral depravity but also physical deterioration. I hope your Lordships will see your way to give the Bill a Second Reading.


My Lords, I wish to add one word to what has fallen from other speakers on this Bill. The course of legislation dealing with this exceedingly unpleasant subject has been a peculiar one. A Bill was introduced in the last Parliament by the noble Earl opposite, Lord Donoughmore. The noble and learned Earl, Lord Halsbury, rose, I think at once, and strongly objected to the Second Reading of the Bill—I have every reason to believe he still maintains that opinion—and a general agreement was expressed in the House that it should not be proceeded with. Therefore, the practical unanimity with which the Bill has been received on this occasion is, in itself, perhaps, rather singular. I somewhat differ, with great respect, from my right hon. friend the Home Secretary, as regards the advantage of passing a measure of this kind, mainly on the ground that I am under the impression that a very large proportion of the cases—90 per cent. or more—can already be dealt with either under the Cruelty to Children Acts or under the Criminal Law Amendment Act. I also to some extent share the opinion expressed by the noble Earl behind me. I do not, however, desire to oppose the Second Reading. Perhaps this is one of the cases where the Bill might with advantage go to the Standing Committee, where its consideration could be more freely and profitably carried on than in Committee of the Whole House. I therefore hope the Bill will be allowed to go to the Standing Committee when the time comes.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House To-morrow.