HL Deb 23 July 1914 vol 17 cc113-9

LORD NEWTON rose to ask whether the attention of the Home Office has been drawn to recent convictions of street collectors in London, and to complaints made by various Police Court magistrates with regard to the system under which street collections are at present permitted; and whether it is in the power of the Chief Commissioner of Police to put a stop to the practice complained of.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think it will be generally admitted that the practice of street collecting has increased enormously in recent years, and that it is a practice which it is practically impossible to prohibit. In fact, it would be no use trying to do anything of the kind. It is now the custom of all civilised nations to set apart certain days in the year for charitable orgies. In Paris, for instance, on New Year's Day everybody is allowed to beg without interference from the Police, and that practice is followed elsewhere. Here in this country—it has developed considerably of recent years—we have what I may term our own "charitable saturnalia," and in accordance with the sensational and advertising spirit of the age, persons, chiefly of the female sex, dress themselves up in more or less becoming costumes and solicit alms from the opposite sex iii public places. This may be permissible on certain occasions, although the practice of encouraging prepossessing-looking females to solicit subscriptions from unknown men seems a somewhat hazardous enterprise.

But as a matter of fact the streets are now permanently occupied with bands of people rattling money-boxes in order to excite the generosity of passers-by, and they are frequently reinforced by symbolical representations, such as stuffed cats, or canaries, or objects of that kind, which are supposed to indicate the nature of the object for which the charity is required. As far as I understand, permits for this sort of thing are no longer required. Anybody can beg for any mortal thing that he or she likes provided it is done in a stationary manner and an obstruction is not caused by moving about. There is not the smallest guarantee, so far as I am aware, that the object is a genuine one, and if you were to examine many of these collectors they would probably find it exceedingly difficult to give any intelligible explanation of the organisation which he or she was purporting to serve. Many of these pseudo-philanthropists are paid; in many eases they receive as much as 25 per cent. of their collections, and in reality they are nothing but box-shaking parasites. Some of them are obvious and palpable frauds, because among the collectors may be observed boys dressed up as Boy Scouts, when we know that by the rules of that organisation members are strictly forbidden to take part in any acts of this kind.

If any noble Lord wishes to study what goes on I recommend him to an article which appeared in the Observer on May 17, and to a paper which was contributed to the Charity Organisation Society by Mr. Price. My noble friend Lord Sanderson is a high official of that well-known organisation, and I have no doubt he will have something to say on the subject later. But I wish to call attention to some observations that have been made by Police magistrates on this matter. On January 10 this year at Marlborough-street Police Court a young man was summoned for pushing a collecting box in people's faces, and he described himself as collecting for a society for feeding poor children and providing seaside holidays. The address of the society could not be discovered, but a balance sheet was produced and it was shown that this collector's expenses were no less than £89,he himself getting 3d. in the shilling on what he collected. The magistrate, in fining the man 10s., said that the defendant's operations were "a great scandal and a very great nuisance, and it was to be regretted that such a state of things should be allowed in the streets."

Then on April 19 this year two women were summoned at the same Police Court for soliciting subscriptions in connection with a fresh air fund, which, by the way, had nothing to do with the well-known Pearson's Fresh Air Fund. The magistrate, in fining these women for obstruction, observed that the present laxity was "a scandal." He said that those who were responsible should take care that the public who contributed should not be misled, and he thought that the collectors should carry a printed placard stating that they received 25 per cent. of what they collected. Then there was the case of a woman, on April 28 of this year, who was also collecting for a fresh air fund, and it appeared that this woman also received 25 per cent. of the amount collected. The magistrate, Mr. Denman, said he thought it was begging when a person collected money in this way and received a quarter of the amount collected. He had a strong suspicion that it was not a bona fide concern, and sentenced the defendant to one day's imprisonment. I might quote numerous other instances, and I might state that this question has been brought up at the Westminster Borough Council, but I think the quotations I have read are sufficient for the purpose.

In the collecting of money there are two methods in vogue. One is the old-fashioned method of appealing to reason, and that is the method which is employed by my noble friend Lord Curzon, whom I should like to congratulate on being the most successful collector of money with whom I am acquainted. There is nothing whatever sensational about my noble friend's methods. He writes to people in a perfectly straightforward way, sometimes at considerable length, and advances admirable reasons why the particular object which he is recommending should be supported. He is not content with a refusal, but perseveres until in almost every case he gets his way.


Not with you.


My noble friend is more ungrateful than I should have expected, because I have unwillingly contributed to objects in which he is interested; and after his interruption I feel disposed to withdraw the commendation I have passed on him. But I assert that the method of my noble friend is infinitely preferable to the popular methods which obtain at the present day. My noble friend appeals to people's reason, but the appeals which are usually made are sensational appeals, and this is the form of appeal which commends itself to the Press, more especially the illustrated Press, because it provides them with an unlimited amount of cheap "copy." But the most questionable form of money collecting is to send people, especially women, into the streets to collect in an indiscriminate way. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, it is perfectly hopeless to try and attempt to stop this practice; in fact, it would not be reasonable. But if street collecting is going to be a permanent institution, then I think there should be a certain amount of control and people should at all events have some indication as to how their money is actually going to be employed. I do not gather that any legislation is necessary. I fancy that all that is required is some action on the part of the Police. I believe that the Police do not at all dislike the idea of the question being dealt with, and I feel convinced in my own mind that if the Government Department concerned cares to take any step with regard to this particular practice it will meet with general approval.


My Lords, this question was discussed at a special meeting of the Charity Organisation Society in February last, and as Lord Methuen, who presided on that occasion and who is chairman of the council, is prevented from being present this afternoon, I venture to offer a few observations on the subject. We had before us at this meeting some rather painful instances of the results of inducing girls and young women to take about collecting boxes by offering them a salary and a portion of their collections. A lady got up in the middle of the hall and asked whether anybody was acquainted with a society for instituting an industrial home for little black boys and girls at Nairobi. There was no answer, and she then said she belonged to a rescue society, and that two young women who had come under her notice had been engaged to collect for this supposed society. It had no office, and the girls met their employer at a tea shop. These girls were attractive girls, and when they came to her knowledge one of them had gone on the streets and the other was only just saved. It was an unfortunate feature in this case that the girls had been engaged through a Labour Exchange. It is a distressing tiring that a Government. Department should be made use of for such purposes.

There was a good deal of difficulty felt at the meeting as to what could be done. The Hospital Saturday Fund had given up its collection in the streets on one day in the year, and had not suffered in income. The National Lifeboat Institution on the other hand, felt that it could not do so without serious loss. A suggestion was made that any society which collected in this way should be restricted to one day in the year. That, of course, would prohibit all societies which were not large societies from collecting in this way. It was felt that there would be a great deal of difficulty in putting upon the Police or any other public authority the duty of discriminating between what charities were good charities and what were had charities. It was found on inquiry I hat there were some regulations at the present moment, but that they were more to prevent obstruction on pathways than anything else. There is, however, a rule that no boy under 14 and no girl under 16 shall collect in the streets without having a chaperon of adult age. The meeting, after discussing the whole subject, felt unable to make any specific recommendation. They passed the following resolution— That in the opinion of this meeting the present practice of collecting for charities in streets and public places offers easy opportunities for fraud and tends to bring discredit upon the cause of charity. And they requested the council to take such steps as they could to remedy the evil.

We made a good many inquiries. The Police, in cases of actual fraud, do prosecute. As Lord Newton stated, there have been several occasions on which these people have been brought before the magistrates, and the collecting boxes in one case were seized on the ground that the collection was equivalent to begging. We shall no doubt hear whether it is pos- sible on the part of the Metropolitan Police or the London County Council to make further restrictions on the practice. Of course, the real remedy is that the public should be more discriminating in the distribution of its charity. Unfortunately, in England the feeling of compassion has always translated itself into the rather careless production of money, and I suppose that will continue. But if the noble Lord who will reply for the Government tells us that the Police and the County Council cannot take steps for restricting the practice, then the public ought to be made thoroughly aware that the fact that collectors are allowed to stand on the pavement or to walk about the streets shaking money-boxes in everybody's face does not give the slightest guarantee that the money is going to be applied in whole, or even in part, to the purpose for which it is said to be intended.


My Lords, I am sure we shall all agree with Lord Newton that this shaking of money-boxes in people's faces in the streets is a most annoying and objectionable practice. The attention of the Home Office had not been called to the matter particularly until the noble Lord put down his Question. Since then the Home Office have been in communication with the Chief Magistrate and the Chief Commissioner of Police on the subject. The Chief Magistrate states that no such complaints as those indicated have been brought to his notice. The Commissioner of Police reports that his attention had been called to the views expressed by one or two of the London magistrates—no doubt those to which the noble Lord referred—and he had been giving the whole subject his careful attention.

But when you come to the powers of the Police, they are, as Lord Sanderson has indicated, somewhat limited. The only power that the Chief Commissioner possesses is to make regulations under the Metropolitan Streets Act, 1867, as amended by the Metropolitan Streets Act, 1903, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State, with respect to the places where and conditions under which persons may collect money in any street for charitable and other purposes, but he has no power to discriminate between persons and societies. Under these Acts the Chief Commissioner did issue regulations in 1910, and it was under those regulations that the convictions referred to by the noble Lord were secured. Those regulations, of which I have a copy and which I can show to the noble Lord, deal mainly with the obstruction of the footways so as to cause annoyance. They limit the number of persons who may act as collectors at one place, the use of tables in the street for the purpose, and matters of that sort, and also, as Lord Sanderson mentioned, there is a regulation that no boy under the age of 14 and no girl under the age of 16 shall act as a collector unless he or she is under the charge of an adult person. The powers of the Chief Commissioner are practically limited to making regulations of this sort, and if it is desired to strengthen the hands of the Police fresh legislation would be required.

The Chief Commissioner is of opinion that the charitable public are to some extent exploited under the guise of charity by many unscrupulous persons. A substantial proportion—25 per cent. very often so we have been told today—goes in payment to the collectors; but, as I say, it is impossible for the Police to undertake the duty of discriminating between one society and another. They have no machinery for doing so, and I think any attempt to establish a censorship as between different charities would give rise to a great deal of complaint and dissatisfaction. If, as a result of this question being raised the public to some extent abstain from contributing to street collections except in the case of well-known institutions—and even there I personally have grave doubts whether it is wise to contribute in the streets—some good will have been done. It would, I think, be very much better to make those charitable contributions through other and safer channels. That seems to me to be the best remedy, and if attention is drawn to the evil through the question having been raised in your Lordships' House this discussion will have done good. The Police, of course, always take proceedings when any case is brought to their notice in which there is evidence of fraud, but it is always difficult to obtain evidence of fraud and to establish it. If it is desired that more should be done than is done by the Chief Commissioner at present, his hands, as I say, will have to be strengthened by fresh legislation.