HL Deb 10 April 1935 vol 96 cc683-5

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, ever since the beginning of last century our social legislation has become more humane and the administration of the law more sympathetic, but there are some directions in which progress has been practically nil. It is quite true that during that time we have abolished slavery at immense cost to the taxpayer, and we have passed legislation which makes things much easier for the less well-to-do. On the other hand, our divorce laws are a disgrace to the nation, imprisonment for debt, I believe, now accounts for more than half of the prison population, and very often, as in the case I am bringing forward in this Bill, the punishment is terribly drastic and unfair for the offence, or alleged offence, of which the law-breaker is supposed to be guilty.

The main point of this Bill is that in future no man, because he is without money and sleeps out, shall be liable to conviction for three months with hard labour. At present the law is grossly unfair. It favours the rich man and penalises the poor man. If a rich man has no money in his pocket he can sleep out without breaking the law under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, whereas the poor man, who ought to be the person who receives consideration, if he sleeps out and is apprehended by a constable and has no money in his pocket, is liable to three months imprisonment with hard labour. I submit that this ought to be remedied, and this Bill does remedy it. I take no credit for the Bill. It is not my Bill. It is a Bill which comes from another place. The credit belongs to General Spears, a Conservative Member of Parliament, who has interested himself very much in this matter. It is not a Party Bill. It is backed by the Leader of the Socialist Party in another place, by a distinguished Cabinet Minister of Liberal persuasion and by a Conservative Member of Parliament. It has been drawn up in consultation with, and with the approval of, the Home Office. It has the approval of the Chief Constables' Conference, and I hope that your Lordships will give it the same support as it received in another place. There was no discussion there on any stage of the Bill. It received universal support.

It is often said, "Do not let us take the trouble to repeal Acts because they are obsolete and are never made use of." But in the case of the Vagrancy Act, 1824, it is a very live Act indeed. In the period from 1925 to 1929 convictions for sleeping out averaged 2,163 each year, so that this law is by no means obsolete. In 1931, 1,612 persons were charged with this offence, and in 1932 271 people were sent to prison for lodging in barns and sleeping out in the open, because they had no money in their pockets, and out of that number eighteen were sent to prison for three months. That is simply appalling, and I hope your Lordships will pass this Bill and remedy such an injustice.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Mount Temple.)


My Lords, I only rise to say in one sentence that we, on this side of the House, give a hearty support to the Second Reading of this Bill. It is only a matter of wonder that it has not occurred to somebody to do this before.


My Lords, I have little to add to what the noble Lord has said, for this Bill has been drafted in collaboration with the Department which I represent. I think that all who are acquainted with the provisions of. Section 4 of the Act of 1824 agree that it is time that this amendment was made. I do not know whether your Lordships are acquainted with the only speech that was made in another place with reference to this Bill by General Spears. He quoted a case in 1933, the case of Thomas Parker, who was an ex-Service man, and, like many ex-Service men after the War, was seeking employment, and whilst so trying to find employment he slept under a hedge, where in due course he was arrested by a policeman on the ground that he had no means of subsistence. That case caused a certain public interest and comment, for he was committed for fourteen days to prison, where it was reported by the prison doctor that he was suffering from a form of claustrophobia which is, I understand, a nervous disorder riot uncommon among ex-Service men; and owing to his limited confinement he suffered considerably and eventually suffered injuries to his head which caused his death. That was a case which was brought to the notice of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and which, I think, first raised the question of art amendment to the Act of 1824. I merely wish to support the remarks made by the noble Lord who has brought this Bill to your Lordships' House and to say that the Bill has the full support and approval of the Department I represent.

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