This year is the centenary of the 1908 Children Act, which set the legal standard for child protection, setting out principles that we now take for granted. It was largely the responsibility of Herbert Samuel, a young under secretary of state who later became leader of the Liberal Party

Do you know the names of any politicians?  Your own member of parliament for the area where you live, for example? Any others? [Discuss for a while]

Why do people decide to become politicians, or councillors, or members of parliament? There are many reasons, but most do it because they feel it’s their chance to make a difference to peoples’ lives.

Today we’re going to hear about a young man who went into parliament a long time ago. Eventually he became a famous politician, but before that, while he was still a young MP, he was responsible for getting parliament to pass some laws that changed the lives of many children for the better.

The friend you didn’t know you had

Herbert Samuel was born in 1870. He came from a wealthy family in Liverpool. The house they originally lived in is still there, and is now a girls’ school called Belvedere Academy. [If your school is based in or near Liverpool, perhaps ask the children if they have heard of it.] The family then moved to London, and Herbert went to Oxford University. Afterwards, he worked as a social worker in a very poor part of London, and there saw with his own eyes the terrible lives that many children were living.

He was very interested in politics, because he saw that that was how he could make peoples’ lives better. He became a member of parliament in 1902, and by 1908 he was a junior minister in the liberal government.

At that time, the government was introducing many new laws to improve the lives of ordinary people. One of these was the Children Act, passed in 1908. There have  been other Children Acts since then, including an important one in 2001, but it was the 1908 Act that set all the standards. Later acts have been able to build on what it did.

The Children Act of 1908 brought into force many laws to protect the lives of children. Here are a few examples.

  • It stopped children from working in dangerous environments such as in scrap yards.
  • It made sure that if they were arrested for doing something wrong, they would go to a special juvenile court and not to the adult courts.
  • It also stopped children from going to adult prisons and set up special schools for young offenders.
  • The Act also made sure that children couldn’t buy cigarettes or go into pubs unaccompanied.
  • There were lots of other rules too – about looking after the safety of children in places where lots of children were being entertained, like at concerts or circuses, and about protecting open fireplaces in homes where there were young children.

What else? Well, it made sure that anyone who wanted to foster a child had to be properly registered – that was very important because, before that, anyone could foster a child and poor unwanted babies were sometimes passed around for money. Any of you who know about fostering will know that there are some very strict rules about it now – who can be foster parents, and how they care for children – all designed to protect children. The Act of 1908 was the first act to set down these rules.

It was a long and complicated set of rules and regulations, and none of it had really been tried before: not in such detail anyway. Herbert Samuel patiently guided the Act (or bill as it is called before it becomes an act) through all the arguments and questions in parliament, and made sure that it became the law.

There’s no doubt that this act saved the lives of thousands of children in the years that followed. Most importantly, it set out the important principle that the government has the right, and the duty, to protect children in a world run by adults. That is something very valuable, which will affect society for generations to come.

Herbert Samuel went on to a long career in politics. He became leader of his party in the House of Commons. He later became Lord Samuel and was leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords. He always worked hard on behalf of the people who looked to him for help. He had many achievements, but his work as a young man on the Children Act of 1908 should be remembered by all of us who work with children every day, and know that we have a duty to care for them and protect them as he did. Herbert Samuel and his colleagues in the government knew what many people at that time didn’t  – that the protection of children can’t be left to chance.

Viscount Samuel died in 1963, at the age of 93.

A prayer
Lord, we honour before you all those who have spent their lives and careers trying to improve the lives of children. You know that caring for children is the most important duty that adults have and we ask that we will remember and honour it. We thank you for our children here at school and in our families – for the joy they bring, the daily laughter and the sense of renewal and pride. We remember especially all children who are sick, or in despair, or are the victims of poverty, hunger or cruelty. Keep them close to you, and bear them up with your love.

It’s all too easy for adults to talk together without looking down and seeing the children pleading for their attention.

Further information
Did you know that just in case the government forgets that it’s supposed to look after you, you have a friend in the Children’s Commissioner – there’s one for England, and others for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? They have websites where you can have your say. The easiest way to find these is to Google “Children’s Commissioner – England/Wales/Scotland/Northern Ireland.”

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2008

About the author: Gerald Haigh