HC Deb 04 June 1823 vol 9 cc693-706
Colonel Wood

rose and said:—Sir, in rising to explain the resolutions with which I shall conclude, I feel I ought to apologize for venturing to embark on so difficult, so delicate, and at the same time so important a subject; and certainly I should not have done so, had I not been encouraged by the assurances of many gentlemen, that they consider the plan proposed for ameliorating the Law of Settlement the most practicable plan that has been suggested for the consideration of the House. Neither, Sir, should I have intruded myself on your notice, if I had not long felt convinced, that this was a subject intimately connected, not only with the comforts, not only with the happiness, but with the liberties of the great mass of the British population.

In order to make this subject familiar to many gentlemen who may not have looked into all its details, it is necessary that I should shortly recapitulate the different acts of parliament, by which the settlement of the poor are at the present day regulated. But I must first observe, that with the 43rd of Elizabeth, the great foundation of all our poor-laws, I find no fault. That act, by the provisions of which the wants and the necessities of the poor are administered to, I consider a charitable and humane statute; and, notwithstanding what political economists may write of it, I believe, when well administered, it will secure blessings and happiness to any country that may have humanity to adopt it. But, Sir, in the 43rd of Elizabeth, not one word is to be found relative to the law of settlement. In the early part of that queen's wise reign, an act passed, the 14th of Elizabeth, directing that poor persons should be removed "to the places where they were born, or most conversant for the space of three years next before;" and, by the 39th of Elizabeth, "poor beggars were directed to be sent to their last dwelling, if they had any, if not, to the place where they last dwelt, by the space of one year." It is of importance for the future consideration of this question, that the House should bear in mind this last-mentioned statute. It was passed at a time when the condition of the poor was forcing itself on the attention of the legislature, and at a time when provision was about to be raised by compulsory assessment for their maintenance. In this state remained the law for upwards of sixty years; and it was not until the 13th and 14th of Charles the 2nd, that an act passed, laying the foundation of the present Laws of Settlement. Now, Sir, I beg to call the attention of the House to the preamble of this ill-fated statute. The preamble states, "That by reason of some defects of the law, poor people are not restrained from going from one parish to another." Now, Sir, it is of this very restraint that I complain. It has been this locking up the poor in their respective parishes, the not permitting them to move from parish to parish in search of work, the preventing their carrying to the best market the only thing a poor man has to carry to market, namely, his labour; that much of the evils of which we now complain, have originated. Sir, the 13th and 14th of Charles the 2nd, made a violent infringement on the liberties of ail the lower orders of people; it enacted, that all poor persons coming into a parish, and liable to become chargeable, might be removed out of it within the first 40 days. Sir, cruel, arbitrary, and shortsighted as this enactment undoubtedly was, it was infinitely less cruel, less arbitrary, and less unjust to the poof man, than some of the enactments, relative to the settlement of the poor, that have followed it. It is true, by the 13th and 14th of Charles the 2nd, a poor man was liable to be extracted from a parish in which he was honestly occupied, at the arbitrary will of the overseer within the first 40 days; but at the expiration of that period he was safe from removal; and, in case of need, in the parish in which he was resident, must he, if he required it, receive parochial relief. Whereas, by succeeding acts, of parliament, and by judicial decisions on such acts, it does not now become a question of the last 40 days, but not unfrequently a question of 40 years. By the present laws, settling the parishes of the poor, a man may reside forty years in a parish; he may have brought up a large family in honest and industrious occupations; they may be married and settled around him; he may have spent the vigour of youth and the industry of manhood in useful and honest labour; and yet, when old age or sickness overtake him, he is liable to be carted across the country like a felon, to some parish at a distance, in which, in his early days, he may have lived a year as an hired servant, or resided the last 40 days of an apprenticeship; or if he has been in neither of these capacities, he goes back to his father's, or in some instances, to his grandfather's, settlement, and is cast down in a parish a most unwelcome visitor and entire stranger, to linger out the remainder of his days in a workhouse, or on the pay list of the parish overseer. Again, Sir, bad as the 13th and 14th of Charles the 2nd unquestionably was, still it was a question of the day, had the poor man, or bad he not been resident 40 days, and in most, cases a longer residence than 40 days was generally permitted. Statutes soon followed, however, limiting the poor man's powers in obtaining a new settlement. By the 1st of James 2nd, the 40 days' residence was not to be reckoned until notice in writing had been given to one of the parish officers; and by the 3rd of William 3rd, it was further provided, that such notice should be published in the church and registered.

In this state remained the law for upwards of one hundred years, and it was not until the 35th Geo. 3rd, that an act passed that has done more to prevent a poor man changing his settlement, and has placed the, law of settlement on a more unjust footing, than any act that was ever placed on the Statute Book. Why, Sir, this act, known by the name of Mr. East's act, and introduced, no doubt, with humane intentions, enacts, that no poor person should be until actually chargeable. So far good, humane, and charitable; but it proceeds to declare, that after the passing of the act no poor person should gain a settlement by delivery of notice, or by publication in the church, cutting up root and branch the settlement by a simple residence of 40 days. But, as if this were not sufficient, as if enough had not been done to cripple the circulation of labour and hang around with difficulties the settlement of the poor, the next section enacts, that no settlement should be gained by the payment of poor-rates on any tenement rented at less than ten pounds a-year; so that, by this last clause, a man may, during a long life, pay poor-rates on the rent of his cottage, carefully not let at ten pounds a-year, but at a rent much too high; if this rate falls into arrear, he is liable to be summoned before a magistrate, and distress made on his goods, and after many years of his life having contributed to the poor fund out of his weekly earnings, when he has himself need of assistance, not one farthing can he claim from the fund to which he has for so long a period contributed. But he is removed to a parish in which he is an entire stranger, and to which he is sure to be considered as a most unwelcome visitor. Now, Sir, this is the system with which the poor are at the present day afflicted; from which has emanated such unhappy and alarming results; and which I am most anxious gradually to ameliorate. It is a system that has debased and degraded all the lower ranks of society; it has broken down that spirit of independence for which the peasantry of England had been for so many years conspicuous; and which alone will enable them to struggle with the difficulties of their station, and preserve them valuable members of society. It has, in addition to the above I evils, created a perpetual war between parish and parish, and instead of the parish officers being occupied with the care of their poor, in too many instances it has engaged them in endless litigation. By a reference to the report from the committee on the Poor-Laws, it will be seen, that in the year 1815, the sums expended in litigation and removal amounted to 287,000l.; and that in one year the appeals against orders of removal amounted to about 4,700.

Now, Sir, for this system such as I have described it, I wish gradually to substi- tute residence as the only title to settlement. I wish to bring back the law to what it was before the passing of these ill-fated acts, and nearly to what it is at the present day in Scotland. I am well aware that any sudden change might operate most injuriously to a great portion of the property of the kingdom, and in many instances to the poor themselves. But, before I explain the mode by which I would effect this gradual alteration, let us inquire from what quarters opposition maybe expected to residence as the only title to settlement. Agricultural parishes will not, it is presumed, object to the change; there are under the present system, just as many paupers passed back to an agricultural parish, as there are passed out of it; as far as numbers go with agricultural parishes, it is a complete give and take question, exposing these parishes at the same time to most expensive litigation. But, Sir, it is from large manufacturing parishes that resistance will be made to the alteration proposed; they contend, if residence entitled a man to settlement, and a large manufactory failed, thousands would be thrown on the parish without die means of affording them relief. Now, Sir, how stands the law at present on this subject? If a man cannot procure work, he is to make application to the overseer of the parish in which he may chance to reside; if the officer does not consider him a parishioner he is to carry the applicant before two justices, who are to examine him on oath as to his last legal settlement, and adjudge him to be settled accordingly, making an order in writing for the pauper's removal at the expense of the parish in which the pauper may chance to reside. Apply this law to a failing manufactory: four or five thousand applicants are to be taken before two magistrates, each separately examined as to his last legal settlement, and then, by an order in writing and at the expense of the manufacturing parish, all these paupers are to be removed to half the parishes in the kingdom. Why, Sir, the thing is impracticable; the expense of the removals alone would be intolerable, and never could be endured; independent of the numberless appeals that the manufacturing parish would, in such a case, have to defend. I shall be told, this is an extreme case. I admit it is so: but it is by extreme cases that I shall be combated, and though such a case as I have represented is an extreme one, it is not at the same time imaginary one.—The hon. member then quoted instances where some of the iron manufactories in War had failed, and where removals had failed place to a very limited extent. But the workmen had got off to other forges as well as they could; and he also stated when rooms were opened in London during the severe weather for the reception of the houseless poor, it was found impracticable to remove them under the settlement laws. But when the weather broke up, they were turned into the street with a few shillings in their pockets to scramble away as well as they could. If then, Sir, the present laws for the removed and settlement of the poor cannot in extreme cases be now acted on, nor can manufacturing parishes in the event of great failures avail themselves of these laws to cast off the burthen of their unemployed poor: if the agricultural parishes are in no way interested preservation; and if all the lower classes of society are most deeply interested in their repeal; I should hope the resolutions I shall have the honour to move for their alteration will not meet with the serious opposition of the House. Sir, I am well aware of the delicacy of the ground on which I am travelling; I am well aware that a system that has been for so many years acted on, and is so deeply rooted in our domestic policy, cannot be suddenly abrogated. I well understand that any sudden change would not only be injurious to property, but to the poor themselves. I wish to make the alteration as gradual and as imperceptible as possible; I wish that a better order of things, and a sounder policy should steal on us as it were unawares, and that we should begin by laying the foundation, and work it into use as we may proceed. I should first propose, that all persons residing fifteen years in a parish, in the event of their having occasion to apply for parochial relief, should be exempt from an order of removal. There must be few gentlemen in this House who will say that a person who has lived fifteen years in a parish, without receiving parochial relief, ought; under any circumstances, to be removed out of it. But it will be asked, how can a parish prove a residence of fifteen years? In very few instances will a parish be able to do so; but the pauper himself will have that power. It will be again asked, whether the choice of a parish ought to be left in the hands of a pauper? In such a case it certainly should. A poor man should be enabled to plead a fifteen years residence against any order for his removal from a parish in which he may have, for that long period, industriously laboured. Why, Sir, what is the daily complaint now made against the poor? namely, that they have lost their independence; that they are now dead to a sense of shame; that the high spirit for which the British peasant had been for so many years, conspicuous was gone; that they now leaned on the poor-rates on all occasions; and that they made no effort to go alone. Why, Sir, before you attempt to run, you must learn to walk; and I wish to teach the poor to walk alone, in the first instance, before I attempt to excite them to greater exertions. The proving therefore a residence of fifteen or fourteen years, or indeed some other years of the scale, will very much depend on the will of the pauper himself. But as the scale descends every year, it will become more easy every year; it will be more in the hands of the parish officers, and if the House will permit the scale to descend to one year, which I anxiously hope may be the case, when that period arrives it will put an end to removals altogether. I need not now, however, detain the house by going into a consideration of this latter period; all I will observe is, that just in proportion as you facilitate the gaining a settlement, you facilitate the change of settlement; and manufacturing parishes therefore, who may dread the effects of a failure of any manufactory, are deeply interested in making the new residents transfer a settlement at the shortest possible period.

Sir, I think I need not detain the House by going at length into any observations on the advantages to be derived to the poor themselves, and the country in general, by setting free the people of England. Liberty will be sure to give that spring to the exertions of the poor, that can alone raise them from that degraded condition into which they have now unfortunately fallen, and from which every man who feels as he ought would wish to rescue them. If we hold out our hands to the lower orders, we may still raise them; hut if on the contrary amelioration is rejected, and our present ill-fated and short-sighted policy is persevered in, the march of pauperism will go forward until it has absorbed the whole property of the kingdom. Sir, this is the view I take of this important subject; but I should not have felt justified in bringing it under the consideration of the House, if I had hot been justified by authorities to which I shall ever pay respect and deference, and which I now wish to recall to your notice.

The hon. member then read several passages from the report from the Select Committee on the Poor-laws made in 18l7; in which the present settlement laws are most strongly reprobated, and their total repeal recommended, and a three years residence proposed to be substituted. He next quoted some passages in the late Mr. Colquhoun's Treatise on Indigence and Propositions for the amelioration of the condition of the Poor; in which the laws of settlement are treated of, and to them many of the evils and misery that afflict society are attributed. Mr. Colquhoun in this work recommended their total repeal.—The hon. Member then read some quotations from a speech delivered by Mr. Pitt in the year 1796, in which he stated, that the evils complained of, in his opinion, originated in the abuses which had crept into the poor-laws; that the laws of settlement tended to fetter the circulation of labour, and although the parish officer could not now remove a workman until he became actually chargeable, still from the pressure of a temporary distress, might the industrious mechanic be transported from the place where his exertions could be useful to himself and his family, to a quarter where he would become a burthen without the capacity of being even able to provide for himself. To remedy such a great striking grievance, said Mr. Pitt, the laws of settlement ought to undergo a radical amendment.—The honourable Colonel then concluded by saying, that late in the last session of Parliament, his lamented relative, the late Secretary for Foreign affairs, interested himself to procure the order for printing the Revolutions he should then move; that the last time he ever saw him, these resolutions were the subject of their conversation; and as a sincere friend to the poor man it was but justice to his memory to declare, that they would have received his powerful support, as they did receive his unqualified approbation.—The hon. Colonel then moved the first of the following Resolutions:

  1. 1. "That the various provisions of the laws for the Settlement of the Poor have given rise to a course of expensive and embarrassing litigation.
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  3. 2. "That frauds are frequently committed, and, in many parts of the kingdom, generally adopted, to defeat the obtaining of settlements by poor Persons, who may at future periods, become applicants for parochial relief.
  4. 3. "That the Removal of poor Persons who are incapable of maintaining themselves, to the places of their settlement, is frequently attended with much trouble, expense, and litigation; and with grievous oppression to the industrious and honest amongst them.
  5. 4."That it is not expedient that any poor Person or Persons should be removed from any Parish, Township or Place, (by reason of such poor Person or Persons being chargeable or incapable of maintaining him or themselves) between the first day of August 1823, and the first day of August 1824, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil for the space of Fifteen years;—or, between the first day of August 1824, and the first day of August 1825, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Fourteen years;—or, between the first day of August 1825, and the first day of August 1826, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Thirteen years;—or, between the first day or August 1826, and the first day of mist 1827, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Twelve years;—or, between the first day of August 1827, and the first day of August 1828, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Eleven years:—or, between the first day of August 1828, and the first day of August 1829, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Ten years;—or, between the first day of August 1829, and the first day of August 1830, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Nine years;—or, between the: first day of August 1830, and the first day of August 1831, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been Principally resident or domicil, for the space of Eight years;—or, between the first day of August 1831, and the first day of August 1832, in which such poor Person 702 or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space or Seven years;—or, between the first day of August 1832, and the first day of August 1833, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space Six years;—or, between the first day of August 1833, and the first day of August 1834, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Five years;—or, between the first day of August 1834, and the first day of August 1835, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Four years;—or, between the first day of August 1835, and the first day of August 1836, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Three years;—or, between the first day of August 1836, and the first day of August 1837, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of Two years.
  6. 5. "That from and after the first day of August 1837, no poor Person or Persons should be removed from any Parish, Township or Place, by reason of such poor Person or Persons being chargeable or incapable of maintaining him or themselves, in which such poor Person or Persons shall have been principally resident or domicil, for the space of One year."

Lord Althorp

said, he agreed entirely in the principles of the resolutions, that he should give them his support, though he had some doubts as to the extent of their benefit. The evils of the law of settlement were—1. Their interference with the freedom of labour.—2. The expenses of removal.—3. The expense of litigation. The first of these evils, the mea sure would, in proportion as it came into effect, lessen; and, of course, the second in some degree, as those who had been resident for 15 years would not be liable to be removed. But, as to the expense of litigation, he doubted whether the effect might not be to increase it. To decide what was residence, would be left to the discretion of the magistrates; and he feared this would be a constant ground of appeal to the quarter sessions. Under the present mode of gaining a settlement, by hiring and service for a year and a day, there were constant attempts to evade the law, by hiring for fifty-one weeks, by releasing a certain term of the service, &c., and constant litigation to know whether the devices vitiated the connect. In the like manner, he feared the question, what was residence for a certain term, would be an endless source of litigation. There was one hardship under the present law, which be wished to see some provision to alleviate. No man was removeable, till he was actually chargeable. Now this, though it was very proper where the removal was compulsory, pressed hard upon the poor man when he wished to be removed to the place where he must ultimately be fixed. He should wish to see some enactment to enable the overseers to remove a. poor man likely become chargeable, at his own express desire.

Mr. Scarlett

said, that though the result of his efforts last year were not calculated to encourage him again to enter upon this topic, still the subject was of such vast importance, that he could not avoid saying a few words. If the House had last year gone into the committee with him, he would have proposed some such measure as that which was now brought forward by his hon. friend; and he, now came forward to redeem his pledge to his hon. friend, to support such a measure whenever he might bring it forward. He differed from his noble friend, who thought that the proposed alteration would increase litigation. He, on the contrary, was satisfied that it would materially diminish it; because the right to remove would be limited by a residence of a certain number of years. As the measure proposed that all persons who had resided in any parish fifteen years should not be liable to removal, all the litigation which applications for the removal of such persons now gave rise to would be cut off. And it was to be remarked, that in proportion to the time that a man had resided in a parish in which he might have spent his youth and strength, became the temptation to remove him to another parish, to be supported in age and infirmity. No new source of litigation was created; the mass of, litigation, therefore, must be decreased, and in no inconsiderable degree. He was convinced that no measure would palliate the evil of the poor-laws, unless the mischief was checked in its source by the abolition of the laws relating to removals. In the measure he had last year proposed, he had sought in the first place to limit the absolute sum raised for the poor, and he deemed it a favourable time to do so when the Bill of the right hon. secretary. (Mr. Peel) had raised the value of the currency, and had made it improbable that a large pecuniary assessment would for some time be demanded. Since the passing of that bill the pecuniary amount of the poor-rate had diminished, though, as compared with the price of provisions, it would be found to have increased, and would go on increasing. His next object was, to stop the abuse of the statute of Elizabeth, and to restore it to its original intent, by confining the relief to those who are unable to work, instead of extending it to those who are unwilling to work. This abuse had had its origin in the law of removals, which, it was his third object to have done away with. Down to the period of the Commonwealth, there had been no complaints of the poor-laws; but at that time, for obvious reasons, the civil war had produced a system of wandering among the poor, which, in the reign of Charles 2nd, was animadverted on. From that period the unhappy, law of settlement, 13 and 14 Charles 2nd, had its rise. Never was there a more serious blow at the happiness and liberty of the country—never was there a law more hostile to all principles of sound political economy and justice. It placed the whole labouring population of the country in a state of hopeless servitude, since it empowered the overseers to remove any man likely to become chargeable. The pamphlets of the day, and the Journals of the House teemed with projects for the improvement of what was in itself unimprovable. This law had been the origin, as had been well observed, of more litigation than any law which ever existed. Setting aside the numerous decisions of the court of King's-bench, the justices in all the counties in England were four times, a year chiefly occupied in deciding questions arising out of this artificial system, viz.:—Where a poor man, entitled to maintenance, should be maintained. The hardship of removals was so grievous, that cases of exception had been introduced;—first. In case a man had been hired, and served for a year; next, in case he paid the poor-rates; next, in case he filled an annual office; next, in case he was an apprentice. In all these cases the original law of 40 days settlement was reverted to; so that a man who was an apprentice was settled in the place where he had been last resident for 40 days. This system was so inconvenient, that the law of certificates was introduced; so that a man was not to be disturbed, when he brought a certificate that he had a legal settlement in some other place; Lastly, came the law that no man should be removable until he was actually chargeable. This system, even as it now existed, was extremely expensive; and, what he hoped was not to be disregarded, extremely in convenient and oppressive to the poor. Gentlemen would recollect the time when the poor man felt a strong objection to be on the parish. And did they not now perceive that this feeling was fast wearing away? According to the last returns, 9¼ per cent, of the population received parochial relief, and he had no doubt that this proportion had since in creased. Indeed, the poor man might reasonably say, "If you will not allow me freely to circulate the only commodity possess, the labour of my hands, you must maintain me: if I cannot remove without being liable to be sent back to the place where I was born, you must then maintain me here." Many able-bodied men who could find no work in the parishes where they were settled, made this the pretext for not removing to a manufacturing town, that on the first moment of temporary want they should be sent back again, and that they were Subject to restraint and corporal punishment if their means should be deficient. The only defence of the law of removal was, that it acted as a penalty to prevent a man coming on the parish. He acknowledged that this had some force, though it was founded in no principle of justice. The proposal contained in the resolutions was a most cautious experiment, as it would be in the power of the House to stop at any moment. In the petitions which had been presented to the House, the poor-rates had been complained of as a peculiar tax on the agricultural interest. Now, it was the effect of the effect of the law of removals to increase this peculiar tax, by enabling manufacturing towns that had the advantage of the labour of men in their vigour, to send them to the country parishes to be supported in their old age. In point of fact, the manufacturing districts were much less heavily assessed to the poor than the agricultural. Sussex, an exclusively agricultural county, with a population of less than 200,000, and property assessed to the property tax, under schedule A., of 900,000l., paid 265,000l., poor-rates; while Lancashire, with a population of a million, and three millions assessed to the property tax, paid only 214,000l. poor-rates. It was a matter of justice that the manufacturing towns should not be allowed to throw back their burthens on the country. For these reasons, and because the experiment was a safe and cautious one, he should heartily support the measure.

Mr. Lockhart

contended, that the proposed measure would produce as much litigation as the existing law, from the extreme uncertainty, not only of legal constructions, but of facts necessarily arising as to the question of residence.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, it was of the utmost importance that the House should be in possession of the clearest information before they proceeded to legislate on this important subject. The resolutions involved, not merely the general principle, but a number of multifarious details, upon which it would be scarcely possible to found any practical measure during the present session. Under these circumstances, he recommended the hon. member to withdraw his resolutions, and ask for leave to bring in a bill, which might be committed pro forma, and printed, so as to afford an opportunity of bringing the whole subject under the consideration of the House in the course of the next session.

Mr. Monck

knew of but one remedy for the evil of the poor-rates, and that was their total but gradual extinction.

Colonel Wood

withdrew his resolutions; and gave notice, that to-morrow he would move for leave to bring in a bill to amend the laws relating to the Settlement of the Poor.