HC Deb 20 July 1807 vol 9 cc846-50
Mr. Whitbread

moved the order of the day, for the second reading of the Poor Relief Bill.

Mr. Morris rose ,

and said, that although there were some parts of the bill to which he objected, yet there were some provisions of it so important, and so conducive, as he conceived, to the interest and comfort of the labouring poor, that he trusted the house would feel disposed to adopt them. The first feature of the bill, which he decidedly approved of, was the empowering magistrates to grant warrants of relief for those whom they knew to be proper objects. He also highly approved of the relief being given to the poor occupier of a cottage, simply furnished. As the law now stood, a person must sell his house, his furniture, his bed, and even the tools of his trade, before he was recognized as an object of relief. Those things, however, were as necessary as food itself; and it was only increasing the burthen on the parish to reduce the pauper to such an extremity of distress, that he should not be able to do any thing for himself. He was sure that this part of the bill would meet the general feeling of the house. He considered that it would increase considerably the estimation of the magistrates, if they were not merely held up to the poor in the way of terror, as the enforcers of the penal code, but if they should be also held out as the dispensers of the national bounty and charity. He approved of the extension of the facilities to obtaining settlements, but disapproved of some of the clauses of the bill. He objected to creating a vestry jurisdiction, and would much rather those matters were trusted, as at present, to an overseer of the poor, whose decisions were still subject to appeal from every petitioner. Neither did he approve of the rewards that were held out at a distant period for the encouragement of industry: he thought those rewards were very well from private agricultural societies, but that national rewards should only be given for splendid services to the state, done at the hazard of life; or else for valuable discoveries. He thought the common duties of society brought with them their own reward. Upon the whole, there were so many points in the bill of which he much approved, that he hoped the bill would go into a committee, where it might undergo any alterations that were thought proper.

Mr. Davies Giddy

would also vote for the second reading, but had strong doubts as to the propriety of the proposed relaxation of the laws of settlement.

Mr. Whitbread

rose shortly to reply. He was extremely sorry his hon. and learned friend behind him (Mr. Morris) disapproved of many points in the bill, which he himself conceived highly essential to a satisfactory amelioration of the poor-laws. There were, however, several of the clauses, which his hon. friend did approve; and if he could not obtain all the clauses embraced by the bill, he was desirous at least for the enactment of those, against which no material objection had been expressed. With respect to that clause in the bill which tended to facilitate the obtainment of settlements to poor persons long resident in a parish, he was extremely sorry to find a right hon. gent. (Mr. Rose), who was the first to introduce a relaxation into the laws upon that head, opposed to the present clause. In his own conception, nothing could be more inconsistent with reason, justice, and humanity, than the law as it now stood, which refused settlement to a poor man, who had spent the vigour of his youth, and the industry of his whole life in a parish, maintaining an honest character and an orderly and exemplary conduct, in the support of himself and his little family, for 20, 30, or even 40 years, without ever calling on the overseers for parochial relief: it was cruel that such a man should be driven at the latter end of his life, borne down by age and infirmities, from the parish which had so long benefited by his honest labour, to a parish perhaps two or three hundred miles distant, where he happened to be born, but where he had never been since a boy, to seek a settlement and maintenance amongst persons to whom he was utterly unknown, and who would, of course, feel but a cold disposition to maintain an object, of whose character and merits through life, they knew nothing. A case of this sort had occurred in his own parish, since the dissolution of the late parliament, where a poor man of four-score, resident fifty years in that parish, applied for relief, and the overseers insisted on sending him to the parish where he was born, at a distance of 300 miles! It was enough to break the heart of any magistrate of humane feelings, to be obliged to give effect to the law in a case of so much cruelty; and therefore feeling himself unable to comply with that severity, he had contrived by an application to the overseers of the poor man's native parish and those in his own, to prevent the poor man from being removed. This wretched old man never had applied before for parish relief, and even locked himself up with his aged wife, in their miserable cottage, determined to starve to death rather than be sent to a workhouse. It was therefore desirable to do away this cruel distinction, and to enable the magistrates to do by law, what humanity forced them now to do against law. Another clause was that which enabled the parish overseers to refuse aid to the pauper until he should have parted with the last article of his miserable furniture, even to his bed, and expended the last shilling in his maintenance, instead of letting him keep his little furniture, and affording him some temporary relief at his own house during a time of sickness or transient distress, rather than forcing him naked to a workhouse, obliging him to become a permanent burthen on his parish. Upon the whole, he wished the bill to be allowed to go to a committee, to receive such amendments either by the expunction or the improve ment of such clauses as now seemed exceptionable, and thus to enact such clauses as would be made unexceptionable, and which could derive no improvement from delay.

Mr. Rose

took shame to himself, that he was not aware the bill was to have been this day read a second time. There were many clauses of the bill which he approved of, and thought they might be productive of much good; but there were others which he thought liable to strong exceptions, as tending very much to unsettle a system which, however desirous he might be to improve it, ought not to be materially changed without the utmost deliberation. He acknowledged he had originated the clause in 1793, which facilitated the acquisition of settlements to the members of friendly societies. He wished the principle could have been extended generally, but there were a great variety of instances, in which it would operate oppressively upon numberless parishes. Upon the whole, he wished the bill or the present to be improved as far as possible in the committee, that it might be printed, and sent forth for public consideration, and again taken up in the next session with further opportunities for deliberation.

Mr. Whitbread

lamented, that the right hon. gent. whose habits of industry had inclined him to pay more attention to this subject than any other member of that house, should now say he was unprepared. After the bill had been introduced in the last session, divided into four, discussed in a committee, printed, distributed through the country for the consideration of the magistrates; and, after the notice of a week that the bill was to be read a second time this day, that the right hon. gent. should say he had not considered it, was extraordinary; and if such a plea came from him, what could he expect from other members less in the habit of attending to such subjects? He had been charged with pertinacity in continuing to urge forward this system; but he disclaimed all pertinacity. He hoped, however, there was nothing reprehensible in a member of that house persevering in measures which to him appeared right and salutary for the public good; and if the right hon. gent. did not approve the whole bill, there were some clauses at least, which he allowed were admissible, and to the enactment of those he could surely have no objection

Mr. Lushington

spoke generally in favour of the bill, though there were a few points to which he had objections. He particularly approved of that part which enabled the magistrates to award relief in those cases where the overseers refused it, and that part which proposed rewards for long and exemplary conduct in poor persons, who in their own sphere acted as meritoriously as the soldier, who, in another line of life, became entitled by his exploits to the bounty of his country.

Mr. Simeon

denied there was any such law in existence, as that which he was surprized to find taken for granted in the course of this debate, namely, a law empowering the overseers of the poor, to refuse relief to a pauper, until he should have sold all his little furniture for his maintenance. He had heard, indeed, that overseers in many parishes, where there was no resident justice of the peace, assumed to make such a law, or to act as if it were in existence; but he hoped it would not go forth to the country, that any such law existed in the British statute books. Such a principle was directly contradictory to the statute of the 9th of Geo. I. which gave the magistrate an appellant jurisdiction on the overseer's refusal, and empowered him to award relief upon affidavit, shewing just ground.—After a few words in explanation, the bill was read a second time and ordered to be committed.