HC Deb 24 May 1821 vol 5 cc987-99
Sir J. Graham

presented a petition in favour of the principle of this bill, from the inhabitants of Marylebone.

Mr. Scarlett

expressed his satisfaction that this populous and respectable parish approved of the bill. It was his intention to modify it in a future stage, so as to prevent any inconvenience being occasioned to local interests.

Mr. Curteis

observed, that the bill had met with the approbation of a large body of the inhabitants of Sussex.

Mr. Mansfield

said, he had been requested by his constituents to express their disapprobation of the bill. They considered it not only highly impolitic but impracticable, at a period, when so great a number of labourers, both in the manufacturing and agricultural districts, were unable to obtain employment.

Mr. Curwen

expressed a hope that the learned gentleman would not press his measure at the present moment; as he was convinced, from the generally dis- tressed state of the country, that it would be impossible to carry its provisions into effect.

Mr. Birch

presented a petition from the parish of St. Mary, Nottingham, against the bill, which they believed would, if carried into effect proveruinous to the country.

Mr. Scarlett

observed, that out of the great multitude of communications which he had received on the subject, very few were opposed to the bill in principle.

Mr. Jenkinson

thought that the learned gentleman deserved the thanks of the country for having brought before the House a measure on this most important subject.

Mr. Calcraft

said, his learned friend deceived himself if be thought the bill met with general approbation. He trusted he would not press it this session, and referred to an official statement he had received from Broadwater in Sussex, showing that the poor-rates could be lowered under a proper administration of the present laws.

Mr. Lawley

said, that in Warwick the opposition to the measure was general.

Mr. Lockhart

could not agree that the rates could be lowered under the present system. He hoped the measure would be discussed, in order that the opinion of ministers might be known. The reduction was often not so great as it appeared. The poor-rates were generally estimated at 8,000,000l.. a year. He had no doubt that in the present they would not exceed 6,000,000l..; and yet there would be no real decrease.

Mr. D. Browne

said, that the poor-rates amounted to a sum as great as was necessary for carrying on the purposes of the British government on the accession of the late king. Unless something was done to stop the evil, the entire property of the country would ultimately be taken out of the hands of the ancient proprietors.

Mr. F. Palmer

contended that the rates might be diminished under the existing laws. In Oakingham they were reduced last year 4s. in the pound. In the two counties with which he was connected, he had not seen an individual who was disposed to support the bill.

Mr. Scarlett

said, that if the subject had not frequently been brought under the consideration of parliament and the public, he would have been more ready to accede to the wish of some of his friends to postpone the bill. But as the principle of it had frequently been discussed, he could see no reason for postponing it. With respect to the objections from great towns, it was his intention to introduce a clause in the bill for the purpose of providing a remedy against the possible and prospective inconvenience apprehended by them. As to the country and the agricultural classes, his object was not so much to lower the rates, as to improve the moral condition of the poor. If the bill should be postponed to the next session, he had no doubt but that those who had an interest in keeping up existing abuses, would attempt to raise an opposition to it. He did not fear that opposition, but he certainly did not covet it. When it was considered that 500,000l.. a year was, on account of the poor-rates, expended in litigation alone, the House would see that a multitude of persons had a personal interest in opposing the bill.

The petitions were ordered to lie on the table. On the order of the day being read,

Mr. Scarlett

, in rising to move the second reading of his bill, commenced by observing, that he wished at the outset to state, that it never was his intention, even when he first proposed the measure, to incumber it with many matters of detail. He was desirous rather to point out to the House the principles upon which he thought the present system of our poor-laws a vicious one, and one which required correction. He had been desirous of putting it in the most simple form, and of calling the attention of the House to what he conceived to be the grand sources of those evils under which we now laboured. He would shortly recapitulate the three great causes of all the various mischiefs and inconveniences which were found to result from our present system of poor-laws. They were to be found, first, in a compulsory and unlimited provision for the poor; secondly, in the administration of that provision, not to support industry, to encourage good conduct, and to be a relief for those who might be disabled by infirmities, but to cherish the vices and the indolence of that class of the poor who were disposed to exist rather on the charity of others, than to depend for their bread upon their own exertions: thirdly (which was the grand and principal source of all those evils, as compared with the others), in the restraint that now existed upon the free exercise of labour. No one was more aware than he was that there were some evils which did not arise out of the principle of these laws, but were rather connected with the character and habits of the poor themselves; and such evils were modified by the benevolent attention and patriotic exertions of individuals, by the activity of magistrates, and by other circumstances affecting the character of the population of the district; but, whatever the evils were, they were ultimately referable to one or all of the three grand sources which he had enumerated. It had been urged as an objection to the bill, that it was a measure affecting the rights of the poor. He acknowledged it did affect the rights of the poor; but then it went to put them on a better foundation. It went to relieve them from their present state of dependence and calamity; but if his learned friend opposite said the poor man had a right to relief who was not labouring under old age, sickness, or infirmity, he would be glad to know in what book he found that law. He challenged him to produce it. The mistakes of individuals and magistrates had put an erroneous interpretation on the statute of Elizabeth; The decision of no court of law confirmed that interpretation, or authorized any such existing right. On the contrary, the courts had held that an order of the magistrates for relieving a poor man was not valid, unless it stated him to be incapable of labour. He would ask, then, in what way the present system operated? Was it not rather to the prejudice of the poor, than to their relief? There was one way in particular. The farmer, finding that he was called on to pay heavy poof-rates, resorted to the practice of diminishing the wages of labour. They thought it best to employ only men who had families, which must receive a certain sum from the parish, and allow them only such wages as would barely allow them to exist. The farmer said, if the parish pay five shillings, and he could get his work done for nine, why should he give more than nine? The unmarried man was consequently reduced to this condition, that he must enter into competition with the other, and must go without employment unless he worked for the same wages. Thus the poor man, who was working; almost his blood out, had only before him the melancholy prospect of terminating his life in a workhouse—he had no other refuge. How different was such a man in point of moral existence and affinity to the state, from him who was enabled to make some acquisitions of property by his own labour, and to lay up for his old age an independent provision! In every point of view, moral, political and religious, the man who hoped to lay by something from his own earnings, was more valuable to society and to himself, than he who was doomed to present labour and prospective wretchedness, without any hope whatever. Another evil was, that a single man, when he found that the farmer employed a man with a family in preference, would be induced to get married, and thus burthen the parish with another family. If the House would consider the effect of the present compulsory and unlimited provision, they would find that it tended to create idleness, misery, and accumulated distress. To make this more evident, he would put a case:—suppose the House thought proper to tax every parish for a provision for musicians, would not the number of persons who understood the gamut, be very soon extended, and should we not soon be able to contend with some countries on the continent in the number and skill of our musicians? Just so it was with the poor-laws. They offered a bounty to pauperism, and consequently must lamentably augment the number of paupers. Those laws had the effect of preventing many a man in the labouring classes from earning his own subsistence, because they laid up a provision to which idleness might give him a claim; while those who worked, had to endure the mortifying reflection, that even out of their scanty pittance a portion was to go to the support of idlers and vagabonds. There was a great difficulty here; and it was the first duty of the legislature to remove that difficulty; but such difficulty could never be removed, as long as the class of persons who were reduced to dependence and misery, was multiplied by a compulsory and unlimited provision, and by the continuance of the restraint on labour. It was necessary that there should be a total and unqualified abolition of the law of settlements, as a necessary consequence of the removal of that restraint. The connection established by that law between a man and a particular parish was exceedingly arbitrary; it was a mere accidental relationship. In the first place, it depended on his own birth, or the birth of his father or grandfather: secondly, on the renting a tenement of ten pounds a-year; thirdly, on having served one year on hire, not eleven months, as generally prevailed at present; and fourthly, having served some parish office. Such regulations were very injurious to the subject in many respects.—If a certain rule was wanted, why not take the place in which the man happened to be at the time in which he became chargeable, as one that was certain and admitted of no dispute? He would ask the House to look at the details. Suppose a man, who had worked almost all his life in Manchester or Birmingham, met with a season of great distress, if he had not rented a tenement of the yearly value of 10l.., or served a parish office, he was not allowed relief there, but an investigation took place as to where he was born, or perhaps his father, and He was sent off, it might be to some parish in Devonshire or Cornwall, to be supported where he never Had worked at all. What connection was there between the temporary relief which he required, and the place which was Charged to maintain him? If the House went into a committee, he proposed to meet the inconvenience which might arise from the change in the law. It was stated, that the burthen would be great in particular towns, and he instanced Nottingham; but surely as the provision was not to amount beyond a certain sum, the overseer had a short answer to give to applicants who exceeded the number to which relief could be afforded, namely, that there were not the means, and that they must go elsewhere for a provision. It had been said, suppose some gentlemen of landed property chose to destroy all the cottages on their estates, and turn out the inhabitants, how were they to be supported; but he would ask, what gentleman thought such a case probable, or that landed proprietors could have such a short-sighted view of their own interests? He would propose, that where rates might become very oppressive, other places in which they were not so should be taxed in aid. He wished to meet the inconveniences stated, though he hoped they were imaginary. It was besides to be taken into the account, that accumulated population gave value to land, and where that population was greatest as in the neighbourhood of great towns, the value of land was so high as to bear no proportion to that in the agricultural districts; such places as Nottingham were enriched instead of being impoverished by population; for in some of them land went as high as 16 guineas an acre. Another objection to the bill was the maximum which it proposed to introduce; and he was free to confess that cases might for some time arise, in which that maximum would be found inconvenient. But the legislature ought not to be deterred from adopting a sound and beneficial principle by the fear of temporary inconvenience: let the House adopt the measure, see the effect, retain the principle, and remedy, pro tempore, the transient inconvenience. If any gentleman saw such a prospect of temporary mischief, as to call for the enactment of a prospective law, he had a clause which might be made part of the bill, and which supplied a certain cure for the evil. If scarcity of provisions, epidemic disease, or any other circumstance of local affliction should be found to render an allowance necessary beyond the maximum, then let a meeting of the inhabitants of the place, not a select vestry, but an open meeting, at which the sense of the people could be taken, have power to make an additional allowance. The system of maintaining illegitimate children, and the mode of imposing rates, were both points upon which improvement might be made; but such arrangements were rather matters of detail, to be treated of after the moving principle should be adopted. It was said that, under the existing laws, rates might frequently be diminished by the vigilance of magistrates. No doubt they might: he knew instances in which such reductions had been effected; but such instances were exceptions to the general rule; and the good effect lasted no longer than the vigilance was maintained. He agreed that the calamities under which the poor were suffering had been produced in a great measure by the increase of taxation. But why had those sufferings been so produced? Because increase of taxation, and the consequent increase in the money price of almost every article of consumption, had not been attended by a proportionate increase in the rate of wages paid to them. The labourer was now paid, not by wages, but by charity: he was demoralised, enslaved, deprived of that independence and self-respect which alone could make him a good man and a useful citizen. All this took place without a single shilling being saved to his employer; nay, the employer, in the end, was a loser by the system. It would be found, almost throughout England, that the state of cultivation in which the land appeared depended in a great measure upon the condition of the labourer by whom it was cultivated. In Lancashire and in the West riding of Yorkshire, where fuel was to be obtained almost for nothing, where living was cheap, and wages were comparatively high, was not the land, in general, in better cultivation than in the southern counties, where wages were low, and, poor-rates enormous? It followed, indeed, of necessity, that a man would work better upon a plentiful meal and a prospect of independence, than upon 9s. a week, with the prospect of a workhouse. The farmer who paid 200l. a year in wages, got more work done for his money, and got it better done, than the man who paid 100l. in wages, and 100l. in poor-rates. The learned member then referred to some returns which he had received from the parish of St. James, Bath, by which it appeared that, with an increase only of one-third in population during the last 100 years, the poor-rates had increased gradually from 9s. 11¾d. per week to 41l. 5s. This increase was even now going on. Would the House stem the torrent now, or wait until its force became overwhelming? After some remarks upon the probable effect of the proposed bill, in saving the immense expense incurred by removals, and in putting an end to laws which formed an eternal source of litigation, he concluded by moving, that the bill be read a second time.

Sir R. Wilson

said, that before the House consented to abrogate the laws of Elizabeth, those laws which Blackstone had described as founded upon the first principles of civilized society, they should look at the artificial state in which, from circumstances, the country was placed. When labour was in many places an unmarketable drug; when corn laws and excise laws prevented the lower orders from obtaining at a low price the necessaries of life; when the poor were many of them absolutely unable to obtain a livelihood, surely they had a right to look for the means of existence, to those who had the power of affording them those means. Let the House beware how they touched that statute of Elizabeth, which was the Magna Charta of the poor, and might be called the palladium of their rights. Men would live; and it was better that they should live by charity than by rapine. The statute of Elizabeth provided that the lame, the blind, and the indigent poor, unable to work, should have relief in money; and that all persons, married or single, who were able to work, should have labour, and the means of exerting it given to them. That they must have at present immediate subsistence was clear. The hon. and learned member seemed to think that only the sick, the blind, or the impotent were entitled to relief; but how long would it be before the poor who could work, but were unable to find work, fell into that situation? Six-and-thirty hours would go near to qualify the best man in England for such a certificate as, even in the hon. and learned member's view, would entitle him to relief. If a maximum was to be imposed upon the poor-rates, why not impose one upon the dormant capital, which in a great measure contributed to throw the poor out of employ? In truth, the maximum would do harm; for it would always be looked upon as a minimum. The scheme had been frequently tried in other cases, and it had invariably failed. Now, then, to the learned member's anti-matrimonial and anti-population scheme. Such a scheme was incompatible with all the legal, moral, and religious institutions of the country. How could the House check marriage by law, and yet seek to maintain those laws which rendered illicit intercourse a crime? Did hon. members hope that they could control the impulses of nature, and subject human beings to such unnatural restrictions? He would not speak of men only. In what situation did the House place the female part of the community? They were to be shut out from the resource of marriage; and they were liable to ruin and disgrace, if not to absolute punishment, for adopting an intermediate course. They were not to be permitted to marry; and their illegitimate children, if they had any, were to be starved to death. Would any man who had looked into the labourer's cottage say that parish relief was a bounty upon idleness?—that an allowance of a shilling or eighteen-pence a week for a man's second or third child was a premium upon population? Even if this anti-population scheme succeeded, would it not go to increase the very evil of which the landlords complained? Farmers said their prices were too low. Low prices proved excess of produce, and were to be removed, not by abatement, but by increase of population. He could not, for his party consent to take away the rights of the poor, until every other scheme of retrenchment had been tried. If the poor were at last to be touched, let it at least be evident that such a measure was the result of absolute and inevitable necessity.

Mr. F. Lewis

could not refrain from offering a few words on that part of the gallant general's speech in which he seemed to consider the statute of Elizabeth as the Magna Charta of the poor, and the palladium of their rights. That he utterly denied. He denied that the House ought to consider that or any other law on the subject as one which they were not perfectly justified in amending, according to the demand of the time, or their altered view of the circumstances of the case. The basis of the constitution was, the security which it gave to all persons in the enjoyment of whatever property they had honestly come by. If it could be shown that the principle of the poor-laws was subversive of that by which property was protected, then it would be evident that such an antagonist principle ought not to be allowed to prevail. The meaning of the statute of the 43rd of Elizabeth was, to inflict compulsory labour by way of punishment, not to afford labour for the mere purpose of maintenance. It was any thing but in the nature of giving the poor personal property.

Mr. Benett,

of Wilts, observed, that the greatest evil of the poor-laws was, that it rendered the poor man dependent on his superior, and made him so abject a wretch, that he had no object in acquiring property or maintaining a character in society. But, although that was a great evil, yet by its removal there would be danger of inflicting a still greater cruelty on the poor. There could be little doubt that if the existing poor-laws were suddenly repealed, the effect would be general starvation. As to any maximum of poor-rates, he could not conceive how that was possible, considering the difference which took place in the price of provisions and the price of labour. With respect to the clause respecting settlements, if the bill passed with that clause, every landed proprietor who had cottages on his estate would destroy them, as the only mode of preserving his property from utter destruction. As to the increase of population, which it was said had been occasioned by the poor-laws, he by no means considered that increase to be, generally speaking, an evil; although it certainly was so at the present moment, in conse- quence of the peculiar circumstances in which the country was placed. In a great country like this it was rarely indeed that the supply of labour would be found too great.

Mr. Thomas Courtenay

thought it desirable that the bill should go to a committee, and receive the modifications which the hon. and learned gentleman proposed to introduce into it, with an understanding that when it came out of the committee, it should be discussed by the House. He hoped that the House would then be prepared to come to a decision, as to the principle of the poor-laws. Adverting to the strong protest which the hon. member for Beaumaris had entered against the assertion of the gallant general with respect to the right of the poor to relief, he must say, that he totally disagreed with the member for Beaumaris, and much more nearly agreed with the gallant general. On a future occasion, he should be prepared to contend (if the House would allow him), that the poor, both from the course of our legislation on the subject and from what he might call moral right, bad a fair and reasonable claim before God and man for relief, much more extensively than the member for Beaumaris was disposed to allow.

Lord Milton

said, that for the bill generally he entertained the most friendly feeling. That part of it which went to repeal the law of settlements had his warmest support. That law was productive of great mischief to the poor themselves, as well as to the country at large. At the same time, he could by no means agree with an hon. member, that the basis of the constitution was the protection of the enjoyment of property. The basis of the constitution was the protection of rights; and the rights of the poor ought to be protected as well as those of the rich. He doubted whether the population had increased so much as was supposed, especially in the agricultural districts. But, was the country to be told in the nineteenth century that it would be ruined by an excess of population? Had not all the great men of the last century declared that the population was the strength and wealth of a country? And yet it was now proposed to relieve the burthen which pressed on the capital of the country by destroying that population which, although it fed upon that capital, materially contributed to its increase! It was undoubtedly true that at present the whole population were not able to maintain themselves as they ought to be maintained. That, however, was attributable, not to the poor-laws, but to our immense debt, and to the taxes imposed upon the country to pay the interest of it, the holders of which, as far as that debt was concerned (and he begged not to be understood as making the observation invidiously), were mere drones. In another point of view, he confessed he thought the poor-laws productive of great moral evil. That evil would certainly be much diminished by the repeal of the law of settlements. At present the poor were in many districts very much in the condition of slaves, attached to the soil. A labourer was deterred from going out of the parish in which he had gained a settlement, lest something might happen to him in a parish in which he had none. And, if this operated against the poor by preventing them from seeking the best market for their labour, it also operated against the land-owner by burthening him with labourers who were of no use to him. With respect to the encouragement which the poor-laws gave to early and improvident marriages, he doubted if those marriages were so frequent as they were supposed to be. He doubted also if the clause which related to fixing a maximum of poor-rates could be carried into effect. If the other parts of the measure were successful in their operation, that clause would become nugatory; but it was not nugatory as it now stood.

The Marquis of Londonderry

repeated his gratitude to the learned gentleman, for having bestowed so much of his time and attention in bringing this important subject under the consideration of parliament. He should be extremely sorry to do any thing that might impede the fullest consideration of the problem; for it it were not immediately solved, still every grave and deliberate examination of the question would ripen the mind of the country, in its progress to that final amelioration of the System, to which he trusted we might ultimately arrive. This important subject had been discussed during two sessions in a committee above stairs, with a degree of candour and patience of which he regretted that the House and the country at large could not have been witnesses. The numerous difficulties which presented themselves to any arrangement on this important subject, could only be got rid of by frequent discussion. In fact, every fresh discussion of it was so much gain to the country, and therefore he hoped that the learned gentleman would persevere as he had begun. He trusted that he would consent to the suggestion of his hon. friend, and fix an early day, when the House might return to the discussion.

Mr. Scarlett

said, he should have no objection to go into the committee instanter, but as he was not prepared with all the clauses, he hoped the House would consent to read the bill a second time that night, and to enter into the committee on Monday. With respect to the influence of the present system upon marriages, he would mention the case of a young person under twenty, who recently paid for a licence to be married in one of the counties, and went the next day and demanded relief and residence from the magistrate.

The bill was then read the second time.