HC Deb 04 February 1818 vol 37 cc150-5
Mr. Sturges Bourne

rose to move for the renewal of the Select Committee on the Poor Laws. The committee, notwithstanding great assiduity, had been unable to get through its business in the course of the last session. He proposed to move the insertion of as many of the former names in the committee as circumstances would permit. Unfortunately, since that time the House had lost two of the members of that committee. Mr. Hall, the late member for Glamorgan had brought to the cossideration of the subject an enlightened mind, and great experience of the state of the distressed part of the country. He was cut off in the prime of life. Mr. Rose, too, had been taken from them. He had given a great degree of attention to the subject, and his loss would be severely felt by the House and the country. His mind was anxious to the last hour of life on those subjects to which he had applied himself—the commerce and finances of the country. Whatever difference of opinion there was as to the great measures which he had supported, no one could doubt the depth and capacity of his mind, and the activity and indefatigableness of his exertions. In the country where he lived his loss would be more severely felt. He was ready to promote every measure which was beneficial to his country and his bounty and liberality endeared him to all around him. The Saving Banks act, his last measure, would remain a lasting testimony—monumentum are perennius—to his sagacity and benevolence. The hon. gentleman then moved,"That a Select Committee be appointed to consider of the Poor Laws, and to report their observations thereupon to the House."

Mr. Curwen

said, he had no opposition to make to the motion. He agreed in opinion with the members of the committee, who thought that no partial measures would be of use. The House ought not to shrink from the odium which the enactment of the necessary measures would entail on them, as any measures must be Attended with suffering to individuals. All the expedients which had been adopted to mitigate the evils of the operation of the poor laws, had been ineffectual. Badging had first been resorted to in king William's time, and had a temporary effect. Poor-houses were then built, and the objection of the people to be confined in them also had its effect. But in the course of years the evil had gone on increasing, notwithstanding these expedients. The inadequacy of wages, and the practice of supplying the deficiency of them from the parish funds, destroyed the spirit of independence among the poor. Labourers in many instances had not. more than 9d or 10d., a day. In Scotland it had been found, that in manufacturing towns compulsory relief was necessary; and he feared that some such system must always prevail in places were the manufactures had destroyed the morals of the people.

Sir F. Burdett

said, he expected no benefit from the appointment of the committee. They would, he had no doubt, expend much labour, but it would be labour in vain. He could not exactly accord with what had been just said. There had been no great alteration in the character of the working people of England. There was not less industry, less energy, less desire of independence, than there formerly had been. The evil was, that people so disposed had no means of supporting themselves. There were not the funds to employ them with profit to the employers. That the wages of labour were low, was no subject of complaint against any class. No one gave less for labour than it was the interest of the labourer to receive. The employer knew whether the exertions of the labourer would repay him. The whole case had therefore been stated on unfair grounds. The people of England were the most energetic, the most unremittingly industrious people on the face of the earth, and the cause of the condition to which, notwithstanding these qualities, they were reduced, was obvious to his mind; and it was also obvious to his why many others did not wish to perceive it. It was the pressure of the enormous taxation on the country. If the poor laws had been the cause of the present condition of the people, how did it happen that at no former time had they produced the same effects, though they had existed for centuries? They had seen no such effects but within the few last years. He remembered, when he was a boy, before the late war, when he was playing with the labourers at his father's house, that the spirit of independence was universal; that it was a common boast with the English labourer, that neither he nor any of his family had ever asked relief from the parish. The general state of the people was now changed. The committee which was ap- pointed, with a view to a remedy, would be little disposed to look to the real remedy, economy; a word which at the beginning of this session, for the first time, had been never mentioned by the king's ministers—economy in the public expenditure. It was the weight on the industry of the country, to pay debts contracted in the prosecution of the war, which could not be borne, and the remedy was, to reduce all salaries and pensions which augmented this burthen unnecessarily—to reduce the wages of overpaid labour, or rather no labour, while the labour of the people was so wretchedly underpaid. Such a measure would have more effect in relieving the labouring classes than all the expedients which the committee could suggest. It was an immense taxation which dried up the resources of the country, and he was persuaded that it was of little consequence out of the pockets of what class the taxes were raised,—whether of the consumers, or of the richer classes, in the shape of income tax If it was taken out of the rich man's pocket, he was only the less able to employ the labourer. He should only prefer that tax which was least oppressive in the collection, that is to say, which returned the largest proportion to the public treasury of that which was taken out of the pockets of the contributors. It was indifferent to him whether it was on salt, or leather, or other articles, or on income. That tax was best which produced most with least expense, with one exception—the tax on stamps on law proceedings, which was detestable on this ground, that a man was made to pay by it for that which he paid all other taxes in order to be entitled to. It was for personal protection—in short, for safety and liberty, that every man paid taxes according to his means: and it was a wicked and a cruel proceeding in any government to endeavour to shut out many from the benefit of that protection, by creating this artificial and unequal expense. He hoped the delusion, as to the state of the country, would not last for ever. They were now told the country was in a mending condition, and as a proof of it, the wages of labourers were, as the hon. gentleman said, in some instances, nine-pence a day, and the families were supported out of parish funds. At such a time was it that economy had never once been mentioned by ministers. As for the relief afforded by the parish, those who knew what it was, knew also that men would use all possible exertions before they were compelled to depend upon it. With regard to the observation which he had often heard, that the poor-rates held out a great encouragement to idleness by the comforts which they afforded, and that many people were anxious to participate of those comforts, he firmly believed the observation was unfounded, and that the mass of the people contemplated it as one of the greatest calamities to be reduced to the necessity of having recourse to the poor-rates. The hon. baronet concluded with stating that he would not oppose the motion.

Lord Castlereagh

expressed his belief that whatever difference of opinion might exist as to the necessity which had called for such a quantity of public expense for some years back, or as to the degree of practical economy winch ought to be adopted, there could not be much difference as to the propriety of considering the best means of administering the poor-laws. He apprehended, therefore, that the hon. gentleman (Mr. Curwen) was mistaken in supposing that the country was indifferent about the inquiry which had already been instituted by the House upon this subject, and which it was proposed by the present motion to continue. On the contrary, he had reason to believe that great good had resulted from the report of the former committee (even if no legislative measure should follow), in consequence of the facts which it disclosed, and the information which it communicated to the country with regard to the administration of the sums collected under the poor laws. In that committee he had himself occasionally attended, and he never witnessed any such diverging of opinion as the hon. gentleman had stated; for instead of the 89 members of. that committee differing from each other, and-from the chairman, the fact was, that all the members completely concurred upon certain important radical points, and on these points, therefore, he would recommend that some legislative measure should at once be brought forward; for he was an advocate for the practical amendment and gradual amelioration of this system, being convinced that nothing like that subversion could be entertained by parliament which the hon. gentleman appeared to recommend; for the system of the poor laws was interwoven with the institutions of the country, and the repeal of such a system was not to be thought of. Reverting to the proposition before the House, the noble lord said, that he should vote for the committee, without any of those gloomy prospects as to its execution and effects, which the hon. baronet appeared to entertain.

Sir F. Burdett

said, he had not disapproved of investigation, but had stated what he would restate, that no investigation or discussion would ever afford any relief, without such a reduction of the establishments of the government, and such a rigid economy in the expenditure, as would reduce the enormous taxation of the country to a scale compatible with the fair employment of the industrious population, and their full enjoyment of the fruits of their industry.

Mr. Caleraft

said, he had not very sanguine expectations from the labours of the committee. The report, he would admit, had done some good, but no effectual relief could be expected without the powerful co-operation of government. Two points of great importance and considerable nicety would deserve the attention of the committee. The one was, whether personal and funded property should not be subjected to poor-rates as well as landed property. The other was, whether the petty sessions might not take consideration of many subjects at present devolved upon the quarter sessions.

The motion was agreed to, and a committee consisting of the following members appointed, viz. Mr. Sturges Bourne, Mr. Curwen, lord Castlereagh, Mr. Frankland Lewis, Mr. Bathurst, sir T. Baring, Mr. Brand, Mr. Huskisson, Mr. Wood, Mr. Morton Pitt, Mr. Legh Keck, Mr. Lockhart, Mr. Dickinson, lord Las-celles, Mr. Ashurst, sir James Shaw, lord W. Bentinck, Mr. Fitzhugh, lord Stanley, sir John Simeon, Mr. Estcourt, Mr. Thomas Courtenay, Mr. Robert Smith, Mr. Davies Gilbert, Mr. Holford, Mr. Cartwright, sir E. Brydges, sir T. Acland, Mr. Morritt, Mr. C. Dundas, Mr. H. Sumner, lord Cranborne, Mr. Littleton, Mr. Osborne, sir W. Rowley, Mr. C. Grant, jun., and Mr. Shaw Lefevre.