HC Deb 21 December 1819 vol 41 cc1393-400
Lord A. Hamilton

said, the House were so often under the painful necessity of hearing of the distresses of the country, that he felt divided between the aversion to occupy their time, and the sense of duty to the county he represented. The petition which he had to present came from the presbytery of Hamilton, and gave the details of the misery and degradation of a large portion of that county. It was from a body of men who seldom approached that House—a presbytery, which consisted, as gentlemen acquainted with Scotland knew, of the clergymen of several parishes (in this case of 14). The petitioners stated, that according to the rules of the church government of Scotland, it was their duty to inquire into the state of their flocks. That they found that the wages of a labouring man were not sufficient to maintain a family—that many labouring men could not attend the churches for want of decent clothes; and that from the pressure of poverty the education of their children was often neglected—that there existed much disaffection, which, though not springing directly from want, was the result of designing men working on poverty. He hoped the House would take into its consideration the distresses of the labouring poor, for it would but have half done its work if it merely suppressed disaffection, which, while want prevailed, would continually recur. Among other means of relieving the distress without applying for public money, it had occurred to him that there was much waste land in that neighbourhood, of which the proprietors would willingly relinquish their rights in behalf of the poor for a term of years, if the government would also relinquish the taxes.

Mr. Kennedy

bore testimony to the high respectability of the petitioners, whose statements spoke too strongly for themselves to need the aid of his assertions. When it was considered that an attention to the ordinances of religion, and a care for the education of their children, had been among the marked characteristics of the Scottish population, the distress would be conceived to be severe which had compelled them to neglect these duties. That part of the country from which the petition came was in this respect peculiarly unfortunate, that having been the seat of flourishing manufactures, the persons once engaged in them were now thrown as burthens upon the landholders.

Sir W. De Crespigny

hoped that the political economists, who had ridiculed the plan he had proposed for examination (that of Mr. Owen), would think of some practical means of relieving the poor.

Lord Castlereagh

said, his majesty's government had not been inattentive to the distresses of Scotland, but they doubted whether they could take measures to relieve it by public money, without injustice to the whole empire. Cases of as severe distress had occurred in other parts, especially in England; and in the answer of the earl of Liverpool to the duke of Hamilton, the noble earl had stated that he saw no principle on which he could apply the resources of the country at large to the relief of that local distress. The proprietors of land in Scotland had the power, though they were not subjected to the obligation, of assessing themselves for the relief of the poor; and though they had gone as far as it was expected they should in the way of voluntary contributions, it was to be recollected that many proprietors in this part of the island had been taxed for the maintenance of the poor to the whole extent of their property, and it was only by that heavy contribution that the cry of the poor was prevented from reaching that House. He allowed there was a peculiar pressure of distress in the district alluded to, arising, among various causes, from that alternation of manufacturing prosperity and stagnation, which was the distinguishing feature of the present day. As to relief from the public, it was known that some time ago a certain sum was placed in the hands of commissioners, to be issued to relieve manufacturing distress, security being given for the repayment. Half a million of that sum now remained unexpended in the hands of the commissioners, and was strictly applicable to that part of Scotland, and would be advanced if any visible security for repayment in three, four, or five years, could be assigned. It was also the intention of the chancellor of the exchequer to move a vote under the head of civil contingencies, which would obviate difficulties as to the securities to be assigned. The gentlemen of Scotland, therefore, had the power of assisting themselves. For a long series of years they had been free from the evil of compulsory assessments; he hoped they would now be inclined to avail themselves of the power they possessed, especially as the whole burthen might not fall upon them within a year, but might be extended over a long course of years. In this part of the country there was no relief from the immediate pressure of an assessment which might operate within the year to the extent of the whole of the property assessed. But in Scotland the proprietors had no such burthen upon their rental. Would it then be fair, that the proprietors of England, amidst all the distress which surrounded them, should be called upon, not only to relieve the distress of their own poor, but also to contribute to the relief of the poor of Scotland? It would at least become the proprietors of that part of the kingdom, to show that they had done all that was in their power for the poor of their respective districts, before they made any application of this nature.

Mr. Douglas

alleged, that the pro- prietary of Scotland had left nothing in their power undone, to mitigate the sufferings, and relieve the wants of their distressed countrymen. But what he meant to refer to in the question which he yesterday took occasion to put to the noble lord was, with regard to the commercial relations of the country, and the general state of its manufactures, into which he thought a serious inquiry should be immediately instituted. It was obviously the change which had taken place in the country with respect to commerce and manufactures, that had occasioned the existing distress, and parliament was called upon to consider of some means to remedy the evils resulting from that change.

Mr. J. P. Grant

said, the House had now before it a petition in favour of a number of industrious deserving manufacturers, which contained such a detail of calamity as could not be heightened either by the speech of his noble friend or by any colouring that eloquence could confer, and yet the noble lord gravely and coolly said, that neither parliament nor government could do any thing for the relief or mitigation of such calamity, beyond a certain sum that might be lent on security for its repayment. But how did it become the noble lord and his colleagues thus to reply to a petition concerning the distressed manufacturers, considering that the great cause of their misery was to be found in the policy which those ministers had been pursuing for a series of years? The noble lord had observed, that the Scotch proprietors should show an adequate sympathy for their poor countrymen, before they applied to that House for pecuniary relief, especially as those proprietors had a power of levying taxes upon themselves. This sympathy, he would tell the noble lord, had been evinced by the Scotch proprietors, who had levied taxes upon themselves for the relief of their poor; but the fact was, that the property which they possessed was not sufficient to afford the amount of relief required. But, independently of the taxes paid in common by these proprietors, each was found as beneficent as his means qualified him towards his distressed neighbour. It came to his knowledge, that the relation of an hon. friend of his, who was a member of that House, allowed, out of his own private purse, no less than eight pounds a week for the relief of the poor in his immediate vicinity. —But the noble lord appeared to think that, notwithstanding the experience of this country, Scotland should be visited with the evils of the poor laws. To such a proposition, he hoped that House would never give its assent. But it was vain to think of any palliatives for the distress of the people, or to attempt to evade its consideration. The noble lord and his colleagues might go on in persuading parliament to adopt coercive measures to meet, some part of the consequence resulting from the present distress, but those measures must be inefficient while the great cause of the evil was allowed to remain without redress or inquiry.

Lord Castlereagh

disclaimed any wish to transfer the poor laws to Scotland; but he would repeat, that while the proprietors of England were incumbered with the poor's rate, in addition to their other burthens, it would be too much to expect that they should also contribute from their funds to the relief of the poor of Scotland, while the proprietors of that country were altogether exempt from the poor laws.

Mr. Ellice

animadverted upon the declaration of the noble lord, that government was ready to lend money for the relief of the people, provided security were given for its repayment. But when the noble lord made this proposition, he would ask, whether it was possible that he or any reasoning man thought that the present distress was merely temporary? For his own part, he believed that this distress, so far from being temporary, was increasing every day; and he was persuaded that it must continue to become still worse, unless measures were promptly taken to relieve the trade and finances of the country. He hoped that before the recess the House would have some opportunity of delivering an opinion upon these important topics, and especially upon that of finance. The House might go on in passing coercive measures to meet the effect of the present system, but these were only temporising expedients, and unless the great questions to which he had referred, should be gone into, parliament would have closed its present sittings without having done any good. They might think that they had removed alarm, but let it be recollected that the evil which gave rise to alarm—that the distress and discontents of the people, still remained.

Mr. V. Blake

suggested, that to secure the payment of the interest of the proposed loan, a new toll should be imposed on the roads in the district to which that loan was to be granted.

Mr. Wilberforce

hoped it was the impression upon every man's mind in this case, that some relief should be afforded to the poor people to whom the petition referred; for in a country where there was so much wealth, it would be quite inhuman to allow persons of this description to suffer absolute want. Were these poor persons among the disaffected, that might be a reason for feeling less sympathy in their favour; but even that would not justify the House in turning a deaf ear to their complaints. Here, however, those, for whom relief was supplicated were as remarkable for the propriety of their demeanour, as for the severity of their sufferings. There was, no doubt, a material difference between the situation of England and Scotland, in consequence of the application of a portion of the poor's rate in this country to the payment of wages: but this application was one of the many evils belonging to the system of the poor's rates, to which system he hoped that House would devote its serious attention; for the evils of this system were of grievous magnitude.

Mr. Calcraft

concurred with the noble lord, that as this was a question between England and Scotland, it would be unfair to burthen the proprietors of the former for the relief of the poor of the latter, especially as the proprietors of Scotland were exempt from the poor laws, through the mal-administration of which the people of England suffered so severely. But while he deprecated the mal-administration of this system, he begged to be understood as a decided advocate for the principle of the poor laws. If any proposition should be made for the repeal of those laws he would stand up as its opponent. For he was quite convinced of the equity of the principle of those laws, however he lamented their improper administration, and especially the misappropriation of the funds collected by those laws in the payment of wages.

Sir J. Mackintosh

protested against the view which had been taken of this subject on both sides of the House. He protested, in the first place, against the observation of his hon. friend, that this was a question between England and Scot- and, and secondly, against the doctrine of the noble lord, that no relief should be granted to the poor, who were the subject of this petition, unless the proprietary of the district should submit to the poor's rate. To the observation of his hon. friend he would say, that he thought parliament equally bound to attend to the complaints, or to relieve the distress of every part of the inhabitants of Great-Britain, all of whom had contributed to form the fund from which that relief was solicited; and to the position of the noble lord he would observe that it would not be right to extend the poor laws to Scotland. But while he said this, let it not be understood that he was an enemy to the principle of these laws. That principle was indeed so entwined with the institutions of this country, that any one who should propose the repeal of the laws which rested upon it, must be deemed fitter for another place than for that House. But if these laws were restored to their original use, they would create no dissatisfaction in the country. It was their mal-administration, and especially the misappropriation of the funds in payment of wages, which had occasioned so much discontent. But, to return to the petition, he trusted that its prayer would be duly attended, and that some relief would be granted to such a deserving class of sufferers who, in fact, desired only to be employed and to be rewarded for their industry by the means of common subsistence.

Lord A. Hamilton

, on moving that the petition should be printed, stated, that it was a mistake to suppose, that there were no poor's rates in Scotland, those rates being very considerable, although there were no poor laws in that country. But even if the system of poor laws were established in Scotland, were gentlemen aware that there were no less than between 20 and 30,000 persons in Glasgow who were not natives of that country, and how were those persons to be relieved? The Chancellor of the Exchequer had last year obtained from parliament the grant of 100,000l. for building churches in Scotland, on the ground that the people were in want of such churches, but there was a paragraph in this petition stating that the people could not go to church from want of clothing. Would it not, then, be but considerate in the right hon. gentleman and his colleagues, to consider of the means of supplying the people with that clothing, without which these new churches would be of no utility.

Mr. Maberly

argued against the principle upon which it was proposed to accede to the prayer of this petition. The manufacturers and merchants of Scotland had, as well as the same classes in other places, materially profited from that monopoly of trade which Great Britain had enjoyed throughout the war. Those people, through whose labour that profit was obtained, were now distressed in consequence of the cessation of that monopoly; and was it fair, that instead of having their distress relieved by the capitalists whom they had enriched, that relief should be demanded from the public funds? He called upon the House to resist such a demand; any concession to it must serve to establish a most dangerous precedent.

Ordered to be printed.