HC Deb 17 May 1819 vol 40 cc465-73
Mr. Sturges Bourne

having moved, that the bill be read a second time,

Mr. Curwen said

—Mr. Speaker; It is a painful duty to oppose any measure purporting to be for the relief of the labouring classes. Viewing it as I do, as calculated to increase, rather than diminish, the burthens, as well as sufferings of the working community; I am compelled to oppose its farther progress. I am at the same time ready to do justice to the motives of my hon. friend. He contemplates the measure through the medium of his own active and benevolent attention to the children of his poor neighbours. The general working of the bill, were it passed into a law, would be very different. Fully to comprehend the consequence likely to result from this measure, it is necessary to look to the actual situation of the working orders of society. At the opening of the session, I opposed the reappointment of the committee. After its having furnished an ample detail of the misery and suffering under the existing system of poor laws, it was the duty of government to have taken the business into their own hands. Efficient relief could only come from them. It may be more convenient for a weak, divided, and unpopular administration to devolve their duties to a committee, and thereby screen themselves from the odium attending a total failure of the plans for relieving the country from the burthens that press so heavily on the community; whilst they promote neither the happiness nor comfort of those who are objects of their relief. That the public are grievously disappointed in the expectation many had formed, must be admitted. I think the blame has fallen most unjustly on the committee. Those to whom it is fairly attributable are the ministers of the Crown. Whilst the nation considers this as the most momentous question, and the one that presses hardest on them, such is the apathy and indifference of ministers, that not one of them has thought it incumbent upon them to attend or give their sentiments on the bill before us. In discussing this measure I must shortly advert to the operation of the 43rd of Elizabeth. Within one century of its passing, the demoralizing effects produced by it were loudly complained of. The legislature, instead of seeking for the causes, attempted a remedy by holding up the parties who received relief to public contempt. Badging the poor for a time produced its effect;—a change of circumstances, and the congregating of numbers into towns, destroyed the feelings of shame, and the numbers seeking relief rendered it impossible to extend it generally. The next expedient resorted to, in modern times, was the terrors of a poor-house, and being forced to abandon every comfort of a home. This has also proved abortive. Pauperism is daily and hourly on the increase. It seems high time to come to a right understanding as to the effect of the poor laws on the mass of the people. The radical evil of this system is, that it removes from the people the care of themselves, thereby destroying that necessary forethought and economy which mixes up the future with the present. Whatever lessens the influence of the present by combining it with the future, has a powerful influence on the moral conduct of mankind. When a whole population, at the very outset of life, contemplate pauperism, it is in vain to suppose they will be disposed to husband their little gains to make any provision for the casualties of life. In the first century after assessments became legalized, the money raised for the poor, amounted to near 400,000l.; in the next century that sum was quadrupled. But I wish particularly to call the attention of the House to the transactions of the last thirty years: in this period, the contributions to the poor have been quadrupled. This account so greatly exceeds the march of this dreadful malady in former periods, that it at once indicates that there must have been other causes co-operating to produce so extended a demand for relief. It is a very generally received opinion, that this enormous increase of the burthens of the poor proceeds from the crime, waste, and improvidence of those individuals. Does the right hon. gentleman hold this opinion? I do not believe he does. I conceive it is demonstrable that it is the misfortune, not the crime, of the people of England to be thus universally pauperised. In corroboration of this I should adduce the wages thirty years ago of the labourer, then about 8s. per week; During this period the necessaries of life had doubled, whilst wages had only advanced to 12s. or one-third. Nor is this all, taxation had trebled, taking 1s. a week from every poor, family. Now, sir, the House has on various occasions testified its opinion on the depreciation of money, by the additions it has made to the incomes or allowances of the army and navy; nay, to the Crown and various officers of the state. Shall it, then, act with less justice by the people at large? Is the House prepared to deny that taxation and depreciation of money have pressed most grievously on the people, and that their situation is changed most lamentably for the worse? The 8s. paid as the weekly price, of labour thirty years ago, gave them a command of the necessaries of life eqivalent, to 16s. in the present day.—If this be as I firmly believe it is, a true, representation of the state of the people, can their sufferings be relieved—can the degradation to which they are exposed be cured by any system of regulations such as have issued from the committee? The malady is seated too deep for such remedies. To destroy pauperism, the people must be enabled to live;—an augmentation of wages and an exemption from taxation are the only measures which can restore the labouring population to that independency of character from which they have so lamentably receded. All the enormous sums expended in the maintenance of the poor fail completely to produce either happiness or comfort. Degraded and humbled, the people have lost that respect for themselves so necessary for happiness. The first remedy is to give them a fair competency. From this will result independence of character and consequent content and happiness. I am ready to admit, as a general principle, the inexpediency of attempting to regulate wages. The writers on political economy have not contemplated the state to which we are reduced. Whilst capital and labour bore a fair proportion to each other, there was no necessity for legislative interference. I will not say, as in the case of Coventry, that it was in our power to relieve them; for had the price of their articles of luxury been advanced, the consumption would most probably have lessened. Is this to be apprehended in agricultural labour? Will the consumption of food be lessened? If not, we might at least have established in the various districts a minimum of labour. I should be strongly inclined towards making the experiment to destroy that cruel and impolitic system of making wages that will barely support the single man the standard of labour, and paying the addition to the married man from the poor rates. Thus is the single man completely debarred from making any provision for a married state. He has no motive, therefore, for delaying to settle, and whenever it occurs he must be pauperised: thus are improvident marriages encouraged and promoted.—Great as is the enormous sum raised for the poor, it must have been infinitely greater, but from a remarkable change which has taken place in the food of the labourer. Within these thirty years potatoes have become the food of the people. They must otherwise have starved on the wages they received. The distresses and difficulties which oppress the labouring classes must naturally dispose them to avail themselves of any expedient of relief, however revolting to their feelings in better and happier times. The present bill holds out a prospect of maintenance for their children. The worthless may accede to this without remorse—the honest and industrious may be driven to accept it through necessity. Is not the principle of this bill completely in unison with the demoralizing principle of the 43d of Elizabeth, creating dependence and thereby undermining exertion? Does it not degrade still farther the people, by proposing to pauperize the rising generation at the very outset of life. The apology for all this is, the education proposed to be given. But he would ask, were not the children of the poor educated now in every part of the empire? Since the introduction of the new system of teaching, education was placed within the reach of the poorest person. Nay, if its blessings were not felt and appreciated by the parent, its universally recognized economy, and the saving of apparel, more than paid the sum for teaching. But, were this not the case, was the education of the mind to be alone considered, was the formation of the heart by those lessons of tenderness and affection which were ingrafted into the disposition by the intercourse of paternal affection, and which were of the utmost importance in forming the moral character, to be disregarded? Could one only of these be obtained, I should prefer the latter, as most likely to produce the most valuable character in that station of life. I conceive the effects of this bill would be to augment premature marriages, whilst it would rob that class of society of their chief and greatest source of happiness. The scale of human happiness is much more equal than by many is supposed. The children of the poor are to them a greater source of happiness, than to the higher orders. Blessed with health and probity, they have no fears for their future life. All the care and anxiety that attend the provision for a family in the upper ranks are here escaped. I am not for interfering with their affections or comforts. I am not willing to offer them a temptation which, however reluctantly their feelings would yield to, their necessities might compel them to comply with.—Such is my view of the operation of this bill. It is impossible the country can much longer endure the state to which it is reduced. If in the last thirty years the burthens of the poor have increased four-fold, or reached to a sum little short of a third of the whole real income of the country,—what a few years more may bring it to, I dare scarcely contemplate. The whole property and industry of the country is in jeopardy, if some effectual remedies be not found. These I conceive to be a removal of taxation, and a fair and reasonable addition to the price of labour. Already the ultimate payment comes from the land. Poor rates are calculated by the farmer as would be wages. No greater burthen could be brought on property. But the sums now paid in the shape of relief, if awarded as the fruits of honest labour, would produce a great and powerful change in the moral feelings of the people. It is to this point our labours must be directed. The demoralization of a whole people must produce its destruction. As such a measure as the one before us can only increase the evils we suffer, I shall therefore oppose its farther progress, and move that the bill be read a second time on this day six months.

Mr. Philips

objected to the bill on two grounds; first, that it would act partially on the respectable poor of the country; and secondly, as it would give magistrates a power of taking the children of the lower classes from their parents without their consent. No greater encouragement could be given to improvidence and want of industry than this: it would also have the effect of destroying those filial and parental feelings which were the great bond of union in society. Under these impressions, he felt himself called upon to oppose the bill.

Mr. Brand

said, the evil of the present system consisted in this—that the funds were apportioned, not according to the labour done, but according to the distresses of the individual and his family. The immediate consequence of this was, a general discontent and a disinclination to work among the lower classes. For what poor man would work if he knew he could, obtain a certain support for his family from the parish? The effect of this bill, then, would be, to pay the labourer according to the work done, and not according to his necessities. He thought also that improvident marriages would be more decreased in number by the system proposed, than by paying the labourer, as now was the practice, in proportion to the number of his children. It had been said, that it would be cruel to take the children away from their parents; but the fondest parents had almost invariably adopted, for many years, the practice now proposed, namely, that of sending their children to public schools. He thought the bill, then, calculated to produce the most beneficial effects among the lower orders of society. The poor would be educated in principles of morality and religion, and apprenticed out to trades; by which they would be made useful members of society, instead of their growing up in sloth and ignorance, as was at present too frequently the case. If the bill was found not to be a remedy to the existing evils, recourse could be had to the existing system: but at all events it ought to have a fair trial.

Mr. Shepherd

contended that the bill had an inevitable tendency to increase population, and extend pauperism. The only effectual bar against improvident marriages was the difficulty which presented itself to parents, of providing for their children. Take away that bar, and improvident connexions would be formed, which would infallibly increase pauperism. Besides, the present bill was infinitely worse for children than the present system. The father at present was the only pauper; but by this plan the mind of the child would be degraded by feeling that he also was a pauper. He approved of the last clause which went to prevent the price of labour being paid out of the rates.

Mr. Ricardo

opposed the bill, principally on the ground that it tended to increase the population. If at present there existed a difficulty in supporting the poor, in what situation would the country be placed in twenty years hence, when those children so educated grew up to manhood? The bill was only the plan of Mr. Owen, in a worse shape, and carried to a greater extent.

Mr. Ridley Colborne

said, that the labouring classes were weighed down by a heavy indirect taxation, and were therefore compelled to apply to the parish for relief. By the present system a certain sum was paid to the parent, who might apply it either to his own gratification or to the maintenance of his family. The claim set up for relief was generally the distress of the party; but it was difficult, in many cases to ascertain whether that distress was occasioned by misfortune or by imprudence. When the hardship of taking children from their parents was so much dwelt upon, as a ground for opposing the bill, it should be recollected, with how much difficulty and pain the rates were, in numerous cases, collected, and the small link there was between the person paying, and the one receiving the rate.

Lord Milton

admitted that this bill might have the effect of deterring the provident, the sober, and the industrious, from early marriages: but could it be expected to have the same influence over the profligate and the indolent, whom it was most important to restrain? He thought the provisions of the bill most unjust. Many persons had been born under the present system, who had now arrived at man's estate: and were these, at the close of a five and twenty years' war, during which the poor had displayed more attachment to the higher orders than had ever been known before, were these now to be rewarded with this bill, and to be told, that, after all the exertions they had made, it was the pleasure of the higher orders to break through the long established system, and determine that that provision should no longer be made for them from the poor rates, on which they had been taught to depend? He should certainly give this bill every opposition in his power, and he wished that besides rejecting it, some mark of reprobation should be set on it by the House.

Mr. W. Courtenay

was surprised at the language which he had heard applied to this bill. Every one in the higher classes of society must feel how much the conduct of the lower orders had merited their praise; but it was a little hard on those who had applied themselves to devise a measure to remedy a great evil, that they should now be charged with injustice and cruelty. But, while some objected to the measure for its harshness towards the labourer, others complained of it as holding out too great a bonus to him, and thereby encouraging improvident marriages. To him the bill appeared to take a middle course, and to deserve neither of the reproaches which had been bestowed on it. He hoped that after the bill had been a short time in operation, it would have the effect of teaching the labourer to exert his energies in his youth, to make some provision for a more advanced period of life, and of deterring him from improvidently marrying. The relief it afforded to the poor, though less palatable to the party receiving it, would, in its effect, prove more beneficial to society. He should therefore, give the bill his most cordial support.

Mr. Western

opposed the bill, and thought it had the appearance of coming from those who wished to perpetuate the present poor laws, rather than from those who were anxious gradually to abolish them.

Mr. T. Courtenay

defended the bill, as embodying two valuable principles. It said to the labourer, "though our code of poor laws is such, that we are bound to save a poor child from starving, we shall do that in such a way as to prove that it is not intended to supply your deficiencies—that it is not done out of kindness to you. That was one important principle. The other which this measure went to establish was this—it divided wages from poor rates.

Mr. Hume

disapproved of the bill. Until the country looked the evil fairly in the face, and taught the labourer to depend more on himself, no adequate remedy could be supplied. This measure, if passed into a law, would increase the evil. He wished a course to be taken in this country, similar to that which had been adopted in Scotland, where, if a woman had an illegitimate child, she was obliged to maintain it. What followed? She was careful not to repeat the fault she had committed, lest she should bring into the world a second. In England, women frequently threw two, three, or four children on the parish. He had hoped the hon. gentleman, in bringing in this bill, would have gone the length of declaring, "that from and after the passing of this act, no child legitimate or illegitimate should be entitled to a maintenance from the parish." Such a course, if taken, would strike at the root of the evil, and such a measure he still honed to see introduced.

Mr. Primrose

objected to the bill, as calculated to pepetuate the evils of the present system of poor laws.

Mr. Wynn

complained of the absence of ministers on so important an occasion. Though he objected to some of the clauses, he approved of the general principle, of the bill.

Mr. L. Wellesley

approved of the bill.

Mr. Alderman Wood

objected to the hill, on account of its dragging children from their parents to bring them up at the expense of the parish.

Mr. Mansfield

was of opinion, that nothing but patience could remedy the evils brought on the country by the protracted war in which we had been engaged, and that all the palliatives the House could apply would prove of little avail.

Mr. S. Bourne

defended the bill, and contended that the opposite arguments urged against it ought to be held to destroy each other. There was nothing of harshness in that provision of the bill which went to separate the children from their parents; as persons in a higher station submitted to such a separation from choice, and sent their offspring not merely to another part of their parish, but to distant places, and even to remote countries. He was of opinion, that the effect of this measure would be, to spare many parishes half the applications which were now made. It was to be feared the habits of the present race of labourers were so formed, that it would be no easy task to effect in them that change which could be wished, and therefore he held it to be wise that the House should look to the rising generation. In them it might be hoped they would succeed in exciting a spirit of industry and independence, which it might be too late to revive in their parents.

The House divided: For the motion, 47; For the amendment, 22. The bill was then read a second time.