HC Deb 25 March 1819 vol 39 cc1154-7
Mr. Sturges Bourne

, in moving for leave to bring in a bill to regulate the Settlement of the Poor, observed, that it might be necessary, in order to render the subject perfectly intelligible, that he should treat it somewhat historically; the first statute establishing a compulsory assessment for the poor was the 14th Eliz., which was farther regulated by the 43rd, Eliz., and the law remained unaltered until the 13th and 14th Car. 2nd, which was in truth the foundation of the superstructure which had spread so wide, and excited so much dissatisfaction. It was required, among other things, by this last statute, that before a settlement could be gained by a pauper, by a residence of forty days, he must give notice in the church of his coming to reside. This enactment imposed heavy fetters upon the free circulation of labour, and by an act of William 3rd certificates from parish officers were substituted. As these certificates were granted or refused, at the option of the overseers, the evil was only partially removed, and, down to a very late date, and through what were called the best times, it had continued in the power of parish-officers to remove any labourer or family, without cause assigned, from one end of the kingdom to the other. This immense power was, however, partly restrained by Mr. Rose's bill for the encouragement of friendly societies, in 1793, and farther limited by Mr. East's act of 1795, which, although making a most important change, and doing more for the benefit of the lower classes than had been accomplished since the Revolution, had passed sub silentio, without any expression of national gratitude. The great reduction in the wages of the poor within the last few years had, however, had the effect of reducing things to nearly the same condition as before 1795; and the intricacies in which settlements were involved were all restored. The evils attending the present system were threefold:— 1. The enormous expenses incurred by parishes, in prosecuting or defending appeals, and in removing paupers; 2. The injustice under which parishes laboured, to which old paupers were sent back, after they had spent their youth and strength elsewhere; 3. The hardship upon the paupers who, having resided many years, and formed connexions at a distance, were sent home to their parishes, and separated from all their friends and consolations to die in a remote poor-house. This last was by far the greatest evil, though alt three required removal. Some maintained that the better mode would be to do away with settlements entirely, and to make the maintenance depend upon the national funds; whilst others contended, that the settlement ought in all cases to be reduced to the place of birth. The first of these proposals would be open to innumerable and insurmountable objections, and the last would at least not remedy two of the three evils he had pointed out. What he proposed was, that as settlement was now gained by residence combined with other circumstances, in future it should be acquired by residence only, and the difficulty was to fix what period of residence should conform a settlement. In the bill he should introduce, he should propose that three years residence in a parish should gain a settlement to a pauper; but as a blank would be left in the bill, it might be filled op with five years or otherwise, as might be deemed most expedient in the committee. This new regulation would simplify greatly the whole subject, without interfering with what were known by the name of derivative settlements. A separation of an aged pauper from his friends and neighbours would then be avoided; provided, within a certain period, he went before a magistrate and made oath to his residence. In case of dispute, he proposed that an appeal should lie, not to the quarter sessions, but to two magistrates, by which much expensive litigation would be spared. Another point to be settled would be, what period of absence should defeat the settlement: he thought 60 days too short, and should suggest that the blank should be filled up with 90 days. This was the general outline of the measure which he had to submit to the House. The adoption of it would only be resorting to a principle already established in Scot-land, and one that was recommended by Dr. Burn, as other distinguished individuals. He should now conclude by moving "for leave to bring in a bill to regulate Settlement of the Poor."

Mr. Atkyns

Wright feared that the principle of allowing parties to gain a settlement for themselves by residence, would be attended with many mischievous consequences.

Mr. Curwen

said, that the general outline of the measure corresponded with his own ideas of what might be beneficially done upon this branch of the subject To him it appeared equally cruel and unjust to refuse a settlement to those whom long service or residence in a particular place had inspired with a desire of obtaining it. If the bill which had already passed that House should become a law, he did not see how they could withhold their sanction from the present. He feared, however, that a good deal of opposition might be expected from the large towns, in which it was not uncommon to see the poor, the better part of whose lives had been worn out in them, sent back to their native parishes. The bill would likewise tend greatly, in his opinion, to diminish litigation.

Mr. Western

was decidedly in favour of the principle of the bill, its objects being, as he understood, to facilitate to the labourer, the means of carrying his industry to the most advantageous market, and to prevent his being torn from the place where he found it his interest or his happiness to reside. So far the measure had his approbation—it would render the inquiry before the magistrate simple and easy of determination, and must necessarily put an end to a great deal of the existing system of litigation. At the same time, he was not prepared to say, that it would not open other sources of litigation, and give rise to fresh difficulties in practice. He knew no satisfactory reason why the poor should not be permitted, without the forfeiture of any legal benefit, to repair from one place to another, according to the demand for their labour. This, it might be urged, would be incompatible with the system of affording parochial relief; but he still looked forward with hope to some radical improvement of that system. It was a system most injurious to the poor themselves, and rendered the wages which they received, even with the addition of the poor-rates, a much more inadequate reward than they would otherwise obtain. Many suggestions had been thrown out, and amongst others, one proposed, that the rate should be limited to its present amount, and that no farther assessment should be made. The effect of such an enactment would be, to prevent all that competition between different parishes, which had long been productive of so many evils. But to the poor themselves it would be an inestimable advantage to find a free market open to their labour, the price of which was now depressed, and in fact placed in the hands of the magistrate. Its value must always depend on the general prosperity of the country, and every interference to regulate it always ended in doing mischief to those whose cause was intended to be espoused. If it were now proposed to regulate the price of provisions, the proposition would be regarded as insane, for it was known that all former attempts to accomplish such an object had uniformly served to enhance the price. The same principle was equally applicable to labour, and he most earnestly desired to see the same freedom of circulation restored to it.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.