HC Deb 11 June 1819 vol 40 cc1125-30
Mr. S. Bourne

having moved the third reading of this bill,

Mr. Primrose

objected to the principle of the bill, as it went to do away with the 43rd Eliz. which provided, that old and infirm persons only should be chargeable on the poor-rates. The present bill would have the effect of placing the very lowest and worst part of society in a better situation than the honest and industrious classes. It would enable the idle and ill-disposed labourer to have his children provided for by the parish, while those persons, whose parental affection induced them to keep their children at home, were to be deprived of parochial assistance, and left to struggle as they could to support their families. The hon. member moved, as an amendment, that the bill be read a third time on this day six months.

Mr. P. Moore

seconded the motion. He could not consent to deprive the labourer of a share of the poor-rates while he knew, that in Coventry and several other parts of the country, the poor were working 16 hours a day without being able to earn enough to support existence.

Mr. S. Bourne

said, that the measure had been framed not with reference to the situation of any particular body, but as a general amelioration of evils arising from the practice of paying money to the parent for the support of his children. The first consequence of that was, that the money advanced was most improperly and improvidently expended in many instances; whereas, it appeared from the pamphlet of lord Sheffield, that the money laid out on children taken from their parents was applied solely to their maintenance, instruction, and improvement; and, which was the chief advantage by the latter system, the rising generation were transferred from rags, from want, from dishonest habits, to cleanliness, comfort, and the means of acquiring habits of industry and morality. On these grounds, without having the partiality of a parent for his bill, he thought the measure would be attended with the most beneficial effects.

Lord Milton

entertained similar objections to this measure with those which had been already stated. He wished the House to reflect also, whether it was not calculated to perpetuate the evil, and to legalize that misapplication of parochial funds of which there was already so much reason to complain. There were three classes of persons who took different views on the subject of our poor laws; one class, agreeing with the principle of Mr. Malthus, was for their entire abolition; a second was for retaining them, and merely altering the administration; and the third, to which the right hon. gentleman professed to belong, would confine the benefit and operation of them to the old and impotent. But under the latter description of persons, children were not included, and to grant relief to them, as was the object of the present bill, was not consistent with the principle which the right hon. gentleman professed. If they ought to be ultimately excluded, why was this measure introduced? He agreed, that the evil of the poor laws was partly to be ascribed to the lowness of wages. Since the scarcity in 1795, there had been a strong desire among the farmers to keep down the rate of wages. It appeared to them better to make good the deficiency out of the poor-rates, on the ground that after a rise they never could be lowered. The object of the bill was, by an indirect operation, to raise wages, and stimulate the labourer to increased exertions; but this was to be done by previously inflicting much pain and misery upon him. Agricultural labourers were at present in some measure adscripti glebœ; they hardly knew how to venture to leave their own parishes, and therefore preferred residing there with inferior wages. He feared this situation of things would continue till the general prosperity of the country was increased, and the capital of the poor man, which was the industry of his right arm, acquired a higher value. It appeared to him that nothing could be more injurious than to bring up the children of the poor as public pledges in these repositories. There were always little cares that served to excite the sympathies and strengthen the ties of affection in every family; and it would be a violation of the first principles of human nature to prevent the formation of such, attachments. Upon these grounds, even were the bill likely to accomplish its object, which he did not think it was, he should oppose it.

Sir J. Sebright

observed, that it was the poor laws which were the principal cause of low wages. If farmers were to raise the wages of labourers who had large families, they must also raise the wages of those who were without; and the consequence would be improvident, marriages or dissipation in the alehouse. He would support the measure, because it would take the children from the profligacy and idleness which they might see at home, and give them that education which they would otherwise be deprived of.

Mr. Philips

agreed as-to the extensive evil of the poor laws, and the difficulty of suggesting an effectual remedy. His objection to this measure was, that it would immeasurably extend that evil. It would operate most cruelly on the feelings of the respectable poor, and remove from those of a different description all restraint upon improvident marriages. By destroying all filial and parental affection, it would produce on the one hand a mass of misery, and on the other an extent of immorality that was not easily to be conceived.

Sir R. Wilson

was wholly adverse to the principle of taking children away from their parents, and thus extinguishing all the natural affections of life. A similar experiment had been tried by the French government in Italy, and it produced such an alarm, and so much discontent among the parents of the children, that it was found necessary to discontinue the project.

Mr. Brand

thought that this measure had a tendency to decrease the evils of the poor laws. He had always considered that the great mischief was, the low price of wages for labour; he meant strictly the wages for labour only, because he was fully satisfied, that were the poor-rates properly applied, the labourer would be amply paid. If, instead of the parish officer the master of the labourer gave the supply, not in the shape of a gratuity, but as a right for labour done, then it would be found that the labourer was fully paid. The working man would thus be worthy of his hire, and the pay would be commensurate with the labour performed. The opposers of this bill had objected that the children would be taken from their poor parents, and would become a prey to the vice, in all its deformities, which was to be met with in the workhouses of the kingdom. God forbid, that such should be the case! It was not even contemplated for a moment that these helpless infants should be taken from their parents and put into those receptacles of vice and misery—the workhouses. The utmost attention would be paid by those who should be appointed the guardians of the morals and education of the children.

Sir James Mackintosh

felt himself called upon to declare his sentiments upon a measure of such vital importance to every class of the community. The greatest gratitude, he thought, was due by the House and the public to the committee which investigated this subject with so much skill and assiduity; but it was a most lamentable proof of the imbecility of the legislature, that for so many years these evils had been allowed to exist without the application of one efficient remedy. There appeared to be a greater difficulty in carrying into effect any practical relief to the poor labourer, than in legislating upon any other subject, however intricate or however abstruse. It was most evident that the evil was either in the poor laws themselves, or in the application of them. He thought the application of them by our ancestors was the origin of the present unparalleled distress. The interest of the poor was the interest of society itself; and if it were possible that by the sacrifice of the few, the interests of the many could be promoted, there would not remain a doubt as to what ought to be the course to be pursued. But he was anxious to impress upon the House the too evident and most melancholy fact, that the minds of the lower classes were depraved by the present system of parish relief; their pride was lowered—their spirit was broken. It was on this account that this principle, which had been pur- sued for so many years, ought to be so deeply deplored. Then with respect to the remedy, every measure proposed for this purpose ought to be tried by two tests: First, did it tend to bring back the ancient and wholesome system adopted in the reign of Elizabeth? and secondly, if it did, was it done with the least possible inconvenience to the country? He confessed that, with respect to the remedy now proposed, it appeared to be too much like that Spartan system of education, by which the mind was moulded into shape by rule. He really thought that the only true and natural instruction was that given under the parental roof, where the children, bound by every feeling of love and duty to the parent by whom they were brought into life, would be more likely ultimately to become good and serviceable members of society. But this was not his principal objection to this measure; he opposed it on reasons much more strong and cogent. It appeared to him, that although in the first instance, the number of applicants for relief might be decreased, yet the ultimate effect would be enormously to increase them. He conceived the measure would have the effect of creating foundling hospitals in every parish. In the ardour and zeal of the first moment, these establishments might be conducted with great care and skill, and would, perhaps, present very flattering results. But the House must feel, that exertions of this kind were short-lived; and those who imagined that a number of public officers would continue to act in this highly praise-worthy and beneficial manner, would find, in the end, that they had adopted principles essentially Utopian. Indeed, it appeared to him, that the present plan was nothing else but a new edition of the old poor laws, greatly augmented. Let the House look to the moral effect of this system. At certain periods, a great number of children, educated in these workhouses, would be sent forth to the world. The question was, could they procure employment? This was an extremely doubtful point. And what would be the consequence, if children, thus thrown on the world, having previously lived in comparative ease, were obliged to struggle with all the ills of poverty? Would not vice be greatly increased in consequence of such a measure? He disapproved of the bill, but would not take the sense of the House upon it. At a proper time, he meant to move an amendment to one of the clauses, exempting from the operation of the measure, the children of parents who were Dissenters. This he meant, to do, because, under the provisions of the bill, as they existed at present, the children of Dissenters would be obliged to attend a worship which their parents did not follow.

Colonel Wood

said, that the bill was not a compulsory measure; nor was it intended that the schools should be any other than schools of industry, where the children of the lower orders would learn the means of earning a subsistence when they come into the world. Besides, the parents of the children would no longer receive any allowances on account of their children, which allowances were generally expended in idleness; instead of that, the children would receive the advantages proposed by this bill; and he thought nothing could tend more to improve the morals and condition of the lower orders than that of giving their children instruction.

Mr. Courtenay

denied that the bill was calculated to promote an opinion among the lower orders that they might obtain, under its operation, relief at will for themselves and children, and therefore was calculated to produce premature marriages, and an excess of population. He should certainly give it his support.

Mr. Curwen

expressed his fears, that the operation of the bill would increase the evils of the poor laws in a tenfold degree.

The question being put, That the bill be now read a third time, the House divided: Ayes, 69; Noes. 46.

Sir J. Mackintosh

then proposed a clause to allow the children of Dissenters at the proposed schools to attend their usual places of worship on Sundays, and to provide against any attempt to compel their attendance at any different place of worship.

Mr. S. Bourne

observed, that the clause was unnecessary, as its professed object was already provided for in the bill. The clause was rejected, after which, the bill was passed.