HC Deb 14 March 1821 vol 4 cc1216-9
Mr. Chetwynd

rose pursuant to the notice which he had given respecting the Vagrant Laws. The subject, he observed, was of very considerable importance, whether considered in a moral or pecuniary point of view. It was notorious that the county rates had of late years increased to a very great extent in every part of the kingdom, and it was equally notorious that the great burthen of them fell upon the already distressed agriculturists; for, by several decisions in the courts of law, it seemed now settled, that money lent on interest on mortgage, or vested in the funds, was not liable to poor or county rates. Among other items by which the latter had been considerably increased, was that of the passing and maintaining of vagrants. To show how this branch had increased, he would mention only one fact. In the very able work on Indigence, published by that enlightened and accurate magistrate, the late Mr. Colquhoun, it appeared that the expense incurred for passing vagrants in the year 1806 was 15,000l.; but by a return made to the House, it would appear that in 1820, that expense was increased to 58,605l.; and if all the collateral expenses were included, he did not doubt that they would be little short of 100,000l. The spirit of our Poor Laws never was, that the idle and sturdy should be supported; but that work should be found, if possible, for those who were able and willing to work, and who could not procure it by ordinary exertions. At present, the country was over-run with paupers—not persons who were really distressed, but by idle vagrants, who did not wish to work, and who made a sub- sistence by their vagrancy. A great many poor shopkeepers who were reduced very low, became pedlars, and were virtually vagrants, as they travelled without a license; but these poor people were, for the most part, driven to this by their necessities. Though many of them swelled the list of vagrants, yet it was not of that description he complained. There was another class who went into the country under pretence of looking for work, which they sought for in places where they knew it was not to be found. Large parties of these got together in lodging houses, and places of the very worst description, from whence they sallied forth every morning to seek for opportunities of theft, and returned again at night to share the plunder of the day. As a last resource they committed an act of vagrancy, and were passed on to such places as they described to be their settlement. They were thus supported for a time without any employment whatever. After some time they swore to another place as their settlement, to which they were passed in like manner, and thus they were always travelling about the kingdom. He could mention cases where it was proved that individuals thus swore to 18 or 20 settlements at different periods. These were abuses of the system which it would be the object of his motion to endeavour to remedy. In order to induce the House to consent to it, it would be necessary for him to prove three propositions. The first was, that the present vagrant laws were vague and inconsistent, and that great inconvenience had arisen in consequence: secondly, that it was necessary that those laws should be examined and considered, with a view to their consolidation and amendment; and thirdly, that a select committee ought to be appointed for such purpose. With respect to the first of these, he should observe, that there were not less than 48 statutes on our books on the subject of vagrancy. The first of these was enacted as early as the 5th of Edward 3rd, but the first which was strictly acted upon was the 19th of Henry 7th. By that act, not only were vagrants made liable to punishments, but it was ordered that persons who relieved them should also be punished. The hon. member here enumerated several other statutes in chronological order which were passed at different times on this subject, for the purpose of showing how frequently the matter had occupied the attention of the legislature. He observed, that by a statute of Henry 8th, vagrancy, for the third offence, was made liable to be punished with death; but this had never been acted upon. The statute which went into a general regulation of vagrants was the 17th Geo. 2nd, cap. 5. Seventy-seven years had elapsed since that statute passed, and many of its provisions were ill-adapted to the present state of society. That statute was divided into three heads. The first related to rewards given for the apprehension of vagrants: the second, to the mode of passing them to their settlements; and the third, to appeals respecting such settlements. He would not go into detail on this act, but would merely observe, that lord Kenyon and Mr. Justice Ashurst had declared that it had been most inaccurately drawn up, and was very difficult to be understood. When such men declared that they could with difficulty understand the meaning of that act, was it not natural to suppose that it must be found still more difficult by magistrates in the country, who were nevertheless daily called to act upon it? The hon. member here went into a brief examination of the act, and contended that some of its provisions were bad, and others so extremely loosely drawn up as to lose their intended object. He particularly condemned the practice of giving any rewards for the apprehension of vagrants, which, he observed, had led to great abuses. As a proof of this, he read an extract from the second report of the committee on the police of the metropolis. In that report it was stated that many instances were known of constables having bribed persons to commit acts of vagrancy, in order to get the reward for apprehending them. The passing of vagrants to their settlements, was, he observed, as at present carried on, open to great frauds frequently between the constable and the vagrant. They were often passed by stage-coaches or waggons, by which the constable saved the money which he should have given them. He would mention one instance of this:—A; constable in a parish the next in Staffordshire out of the town of Birmingham, from which it was necessary to pass several hundred paupers, particularly, Irish poor, in the course of the year, was allowed 1l. 10s. for the expense of passing each; but he contracted with the Manchester waggoner, to take them for 5s., each, by which he defrauded the public of 25s. on each pauper. It was unnecessary to say that the means of committing such frauds ought to be removed. A pauper, who was passed from London to York, would, if he had a family, have an allowance of 1l. 18s. per week; and yet a poor labourer was obliged to toil from one end of the week to the other, without being able to earn more than 12s. or 15s.—The hon. member then pointed out the deficiency of the law on the subject of appeals. No parish, he observed, had so much reason to complain on this head as the parish of Stepney.—It was stated by an hon. and learned member of that House, in the Court of King's-bench, in Hilary term 1813 in moving for a criminal information against a magistrate for Cheshire, for removing a vagrant improperly, that the parish of Stepney had had no less than 25 removals of a similar kind made to that parish in the preceding year, under an erroneous idea which prevailed, that all persons born on the high seas belonged to Stepney. The hon. member then contended, that, under all the circumstances, the system was one which ought to undergo revision. He concluded by moving, "That a Select Committee be appointed to take into consideration the existing Laws relating to Vagrants."

Mr. Harbord

seconded the motion. As a proof of the deficiency of the present law, he mentioned that in the parish of St. George, Hanover-square, there were not less than 18 officers for the purpose of detecting vagrants, and in the last year they apprehended only 23, while 6 officers belonging to the Mendicity Society, who had other parishes besides that to look to, had apprehended in that parish alone, 273 vagrants in the last year.

The motion was agreed to, and a committee appointed.