HC Deb 24 May 1821 vol 5 cc983-7
Mr. Chetwynd

said, he took the earliest opportunity of obeying the directions of the select committee, appointed a short time since to inquire into the laws respecting Vagrants, for the purpose of bringing forward a measure in conformity with the report of that committee, as to the best means of apprehending, punish- ing, and passing them. Every gentleman must be acquainted with the great expense that was incurred in passing vagrants to their respective settlements. It amounted to not less than 100,000l.. a year; and he could see no practical good which resulted to the country from that inordinate expenditure. The first question would naturally be, What remedy do you propose to obviate the existing grievance? He would, then, in the first place, recommend that the present system of passing vagrants from county to county should be suspended for one year, or for a given period. It was quite clear, that vagrants rarely reached the parish by which it was intended they should be supported; and when they did arrive at their place of destination, they received but little relief. The consequence of this was, that they immediately absconded, and returned to their former practices. The passing of vagrants was, in fact, considered a mere matter of form, as might be collected from the following fact:—A man who carried a monkey through the country, as the means of earning a subsistence, was taken up for begging. A pass was made out for his conveyance to Scotland, on an allowance of 8d. a day. The pauper complained that 8d. a day was too little to support himself and his monkey. But the justice's clerk, who had been highly amused with the tricks of the animal, told the vagrant that he would provide for both; and he accordingly filled up a pass for the monkey, under the name of John Strange. With these passes the vagrant and his monkey were sent forward from the north riding of Yorkshire to Scotland. The second point was, that a longer period of imprisonment should be assigned before the passing of any vagrant, than could be awarded under the present law. As the law was now constituted, the magistrate must commit for seven days; which commitment was no punishment whatsoever. He would propose that the vagrant should not be committed for a shorter period than one month for the first offence, and that he should during that period be kept to hard labour. Vagrancy had, by the laws of England, been always considered a crime; and it should therefore be punished as a crime. He would further propose that the magistrate, when the vagrant had expiated his offence by imprisonment, should be empowered to present him with a portion of his earnings, for his support. The third alteration which he wished to introduce was the abolition of the present system of rewards; according to which individuals apprehending vagrants were entitled to claim 5s. or 10s. This system had been very much abused. Of that fact he had formerly given many instances which he would not now reiterate. His fourth proposition would be, that a power should be given to magistrates to bind over constables to prosecute for a repetition of the offence of vagrancy. The law on this part of the subject was at present extremely deficient; the consequence of which was, that confirmed vagrants often went unpunished. The fifth alteration would be, to do away with walking passes altogether. His great object was, if possible, to put an end to vagrancy, which had actually become a trade. He then moved for leave to bring in a bill "to amend the laws now in force relating to Vagrants."

Mr. Scarlett

adverted to the absurdity of the present system of the laws, by which vagrants were sent to their places of settlement, to receive precisely the same punishment which might have been inflicted upon them in the first instance. If it was necessary to punish vagrants at all, surely the cheaper and more expeditious mode would be to punish them in the place where the act of vagrancy was committed, instead of sending them from one end of the kingdom to the other at a great public expense. This view of the question was calculated to illustrate the arguments which he had urged on a former occasion with regard to the law of settlement. In fact, to send a pauper to his place of settlement, was in most cases to send him to a place where he had no connexions, and no means of obtaining a livelihood. He hoped, therefore, that his learned friend would propose some measure to limit the discretion of justices in this respect. The mere circumstance of a man being reduced to necessity, was not in itself to be regarded as a crime; it was only against the sturdy, incorrigible vagrant, that the penalties of the law were directed.

Mr. F. Lewis

contended that there was no place in which a vagrant was so likely to abandon his idle habits, and apply himself to useful labour, as that in which the law emphatically styled him to be last settled. There would be difficulty in dealing with a part of the system of the Poor-laws, without considering in what way the whole would be affected by such a partial application of a remedy.

Mr. Lockhart

observed, that this bill did not touch the real question, namely, whether vagrancy was or was not a crime? There were many classes of vagrants known to the law. Beggars, for instance, who solicited charity; others, who did not actually solicit alms, but who carried on some foolish and trifling business; and, a third class, who endeavoured to excite pity, by the exposure of some bodily infirmity. All these came under the operation of the present law. He was of opinion, that vagrancy might be effectually checked, without having recourse to a multiplicity of prosecutions. Suppose a beggar applied for charity; what was the best way of repelling him? Why, give him nothing. If this principle were acted on, men would soon see the necessity of exerting themselves to obtain a livelihood. The vagrant, instead of being passed to his settlement at the public expense, ought to be compelled to proceed thither as well as he could. The effect of a restrictive system, by which each parish could only incur a specific expense, would, he conceived, be beneficial. At present, the poor were taught, not to rely on their own exertions, but on the exertions of others; and the consequence was that they ceased to be saving, industrious, and economical. The bill was that sort of measure which, if carried, would lead the country to believe that they meant-to continue, with some modification, that destructive system which had too long, prevailed.

Mr. Cripps

said, that if the House acceded this session to the measure proposed by Mr. Scarlett, undoubtedly the present bill must go hand in hand with it. But if that measure should not be carried this session, he hoped the House would agree to try an experiment, which, as the measure was limited only to one year, could at any rate produce no very injurious consequences.

Mr. Monck

observed, that, by the laws of this country, no man was permitted to starve and die of want. Some relief, therefore, must be afforded to destitute persons; and though, in a general point of view, it was a matter of indifference to the country, whether that relief were afforded in one place or another, it was by no means a matter of indifference to A. sand B. the two parishes, which was to be bur-thened with the permanent support of such persons. It was; with a view to such interests that vagrants were sent to their place of settlement by the existing law, and he could not therefore agree to a plan Which would have the effect of subjecting vagrants to an eternal round of punishments in the place where the first act of vagrancy was committed.

The Marquis of Londonderry

said, the subject was full of conflicting difficulties, and the object of the legislature must be to find that alternative, which was liable to the smallest share of objection. The House was scarcely in a situation to discuss this question with advantage, since they had neither the report of the committee, nor the bill before them. He could not but suggest, therefore, that the question would be more advantageously discussed on the second reading of the bill.

Mr. Harbord

wished for an improvement in the system, and for an alteration, of the treatment experienced by vagrants in houses of correction, so as to ensure their being put to hard labour. An hon. member seemed to think, with a view to putting a stop to vagrancy, it was only necessary to refuse the beggar relief. This plan might answer for a society in a state of nature, but was inapplicable to one in our present artificial state; and could not be reconciled with the principles of our religion.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.