HC Deb 03 March 1818 vol 37 cc735-40

Mr. Lushington having presented the returns of the sums of money levied throughout England and Wales for the maintenance of the poor,

Mr. Davits Gilbert

said, he had been induced about three years ago to bring in a bill for the purpose of obtaining the information now laid before the House, in the hopes of drawing the public attention to the most important subject which ever perhaps came before parliament. Unless some limit could be set to the rapid progress of the poor-rates, the ruin of the country was inevitable. Since the period in question, he was happy to say, that a committee had been appointed to inquire into the subject; and this committee had excited more attention throughout the country, and more hopes of good was expected from it than from any thing which had come before the House for many years past. He hoped the committee would not confine themselves to mere: matters of regulation, but that they would grapple with the main question itself. However numerous and useful the regulations the committee might suggest, this would not satisfy the country: by attacking the system itself they would eventually do infinitely more good. But as an opportunity would soon be afforded for entering into this subject, he should not take up the time of the House longer at present, but merely move, that the papers now laid before the House be printed.

Sir Charles Monck

said, the country would not be satisfied unless government came forward and took under its charge some radical measure for the relief of the country from the intolerable evil of the poor laws.

Mr. Calcraft

was at a loss to know what gentlemen meant by some radical measure. If they meant that government ought to come forward and propose the abolition of the poor-rates, he, for one, would enter his protest against such a doctrine. No such measure ought to be proposed cither by the government or by any other body of men in that House. The poor-rates were an evil no doubt; and that evil was still greatly increased by the manner in which the poor laws were administered. But this great evil arose chiefly out of our enormous taxation; and if the hon. gentleman, who moved the printing of the papers would but lend his aid to diminish the amount of taxation—to check the extravagance of government,—he would contribute more effectually, perhaps, than he possibly could do in any other way to the reduction of the poor-rates. No majority of parliament could say that the poor-rates ought not to be continued beyond a given time. The mal-administration of the poor laws, which no man could more regret than he did, was no argument against a legal provision for the poor. But, he would ask, had not the poor-rates been gradually diminishing? From having seen the poor-rates so high, and from seeing them fall, he was convinced they would again have them low. Gentlemen would have their corn bill—they wanted to have a high price for corn, labour low, and moderate poor rates. But these three things they could not possibly have at the same time. If corn was high, labour could not be low, without there being heavy poor-rates. The labourers and their families must eat. Low labour was, no doubt, a great advantage in agriculture and manufactures; but it ought never to be so low as not to afford subsistence for the labourer and his family, in a style suitable to his condition in life-Whether his wages were 10s., 15s., or 20s. a week, he cared not, if it procured for him that degree of comfort to which he was entitled. If they wished to check the evils arising out of the system of the poor laws, no man would go farther than he was willing to go; but if it was intended to go against the principle of the act of Elizabeth, he, for one, should protest against such an innovation.

Sir C. Monck

wished it to be understood that it was against the abuse of the poor-laws that he had spoken, and not against any part of the act of Elizabeth which provided support for the aged and infirm.

Mr. Frankland Lewis

deprecated all discussion on this subject, at the present moment, as premature. The subject was one of the very highest importance, being neither more nor less than the happiness or misery of a vast mass of the population. The committee had nothing so much at heart as to carry through the investigation of this matter in the most dispassionate manner, and to avoid coming to a hasty determination upon it. Perhaps, indeed, they would be blamed for their dilatory manner of proceeding; but it was better that they should err on the side of caution than on the side of precipitation. The hon. gentleman had asked, if by setting themselves against the system of the poor laws, it was meant suddenly to withdraw from the people relief from the poor rates? But it was utterly impossible that any man in his senses could entertain such a wish as to get rid of the poor-rates altogether. This was what was meant when it was said, that government and the House ought to set themselves against the system of the poor laws: the poor-rates, if they were allowed to go on in- creasing as they had done, would gradually absorb all the rents and produce of the country. When he said, therefore, that they ought to set themselves against the system, he said he hoped that they would take such steps as would prevent this ruin even to the paupers themselves. He should not, however, enter into the subject at present; but in the mean time he had no hesitation in saying, that the people of this country would have been incomparably happier, from the highest to the lowest, if the statute of Elizabeth had never been enacted. When he said this, he did not mean to give an opinion that relief to the poor ought to be discontinued. With respect to what an hon. gentleman had said as to the country gentlemen wanting to have high prices for their corn, and low rates for labour, he wished to assure that hon. gentleman, that there was nothing they were less anxious to see than high prices for corn and low prices for labour. If there was any thing they were more anxious to do than another, it was to effect such a connexion between the price of food and the price of labour, as would enable the lower classes to maintain themselves without any assistance from the poor-rates. The committee had had but too many instances before them of the detestable system of paying the wages of labour out of the poor-rates. They had had instances before them of farmers paying sixpence a day to their labourers, and paying them ten shillings and upwards out of the poor-rates; thus taking from others nearly the whole of the wages of such labourers. A most mischievous trade existed in this country of manufacturing goods for exportation, at a lower rate than that at which they could be made for. This was done by charging part of the wages of the manufacturer on the land, which was reaping no benefit from a trade of which it paid the cost. He would not have said a word of taxes, had it not been a second time urged, that the increase of the poor-rates arose out of the increase of taxation. Nothing in his opinion was less satisfactorily made out than the position, that the amount of the taxation influenced the number of paupers, or the amount of the sums distributed to them. He denied that this position had ever been satisfactorily proved [Hear, hear!]. He had heard persons maintain that the country was so impoverished by taxation, that it was unable to pay for labour. But the effect of taxation was only to take from the pockets of one class of people, to give to another money already existing. It merely altered the channels of expenditure—it did not destroy the expenditure. That which was taken from the producer and went into the hands of government, was laid out in the employment of soldiers and sailors, of persons who manufactured gun-powder, or muskets, or other warlike stores. Taxation merely changed the form and shape of society. If they traced the money raised in taxes, through the different channels through which it circulated, they would find government as large an employer of labourers as individuals would have been, if the sums paid by them in taxes had never been withdrawn from them. To take, for instance, the twenty-seven millions annually paid into the hands of stockholders: there could be no doubt that this interest of stock employed as much labour as if it had not been withdrawn from the agricultural and other classes. They all witnessed the distress felt throughout the country by the want of demand in many branches of industry, from government ceasing to be a purchaser. He said then, it ought not to be taken for granted that taxation was the cause of the great increase of the poor-rates. He did not mean to say, there would have been so great an increase in the poor-rates altogether, if the present accumulation of taxes had not existed; but that the mere consideration of the accumulation of taxes was by no means the principal cause of the increase of the poor-rates. Taxation rather changed the description of labourers and the description of employers, than the amount of employment.

Mr. Brougham

said, that the hon. gentleman who had just sat down had deprecated all premature discussion of a subject of such importance as the poor laws, and had promised to avoid imitating in that respect the example of those who had preceded him. In like manner he should begin by deprecating all premature discussion of this question, and promising to avoid entering himself into such a discussion. But there would be this difference between himself and the hon. gentleman, that he would keep his promise; whereas immediately after the deprecation of the hon. gentleman, it had seemed good to him to enter into a most delicate and difficult topic which had not any connexion with this important question. And having thus discussed the subject of the poor laws at considerable length, as if he had not sufficiently redeemed his pledge to the House, the hon. gentleman had then entered into another subject almost as important as the poor laws, namely that of taxation. The discovery which the hon. gentleman had made on this occasion, was not indeed so self evident as that which he lately made that the country banks issued paper. The last discovery, however, though not so self evident, was certainly highly curi- § ous; namely, that taxation had no effect whatever in increasing the number of paupers, or the sums necessary to be distributed among them; that is—it was of no consequence whether 1,000l. was laid out in the employment of productive labour, or whether this 1,000l. should be withdrawn from productive labour, and given to a sinecure lord of the Admiralty, who did no work whatever. He had taken this instance, which might serve as a specimen of the doctrines of the hon. gentleman on this subject. But he would keep to his promise, and not enter into any discussion of this subject. He begged, however, to protest in the first instance—for this was the first time he had heard this doctrine maintained in that House—against all and every part of it: and he would undertake to show, when the time came for entering into such a discussion,—that there never was a proposition maintained, more fallacious or more dangerous to the country.

Mr. F. Lewis

explained. He had never said that taxation had no effect in increasing the poor rates. What he had said was, that the number of paupers was not occasioned by taxation alone.

Mr. Curwen

was convinced that taxation clearly entered into the condition of the labouring poorer classes, and believed they did not pay less than 25 per cent to the government in the shape of taxes.

The papers were ordered to be printed, and referred to the committee on the poor laws.