HC Deb 29 April 1828 vol 19 cc199-208
Mr. P. Macqueen,

in rising to move the second reading of the bill to abolish Settlements by Hiring and Service, said, he was well aware he should be expected to state, to the satisfaction of the House, the motives which had induced him to ask the repeal of acts which had so long formed a part of the legislature of the country; and also to point out the advantages he proposed to derive from a new and opposite system. Before he went into the general subject, he was anxious to remove any misapprehension which appeared to exist. It was said that, previous to a measure of this importance, a report ought to have come down from the committee in which it originated. Now, he was free to declare, that the committee, on entering upon the performance of their duties, considering that this measure was the first and necessary step to a general amelioration of the other parts of settlements, were most anxious that this measure should be urged without loss of time; and with the reports of 1817 and 1819 before them, they did not think it necessary to put the country to the expense of bringing evidence from all parts of England to substantiate facts which were fully established in the individual knowledge and experience of every member. In legislating for that numerous portion of the community who ought to depend entirely on their own labour for support, there was one axiom he could wish ever to keep in view; namely, that no obligation be imposed on them, except what might tend to their own benefit. The truth of the well-known sentence, that "man must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow," was universally admitted as generally applicable to the condition of the species, since, except the air we breathe, there was not another article essential to existence that could be obtained unless by bodily labour. Under these considerations, it became a paramount duty of every government to encourage the providing of employment for its population as the means of their subsistence; and this employment ought to comprehend a sufficiency of the necessaries, and a fair portion of the enjoyments, of life. Where this was not the case, something wrong must exist, which calls, at all events, for investigation, and, if possible, improvement. In the county of Bedford, there were at this moment many hundreds of able-bodied young men, from fifteen to twenty-five, who were actually existing on a parish pittance of from 3s. to 3s. 6d. a week; and yet, if any of these lads were to snare a pheasant, or commit a trifling robbery, he would be committed to gaol, where he would cost the county 4s. 6d. or 5s. a week, and be put into the possession of a greater share of the necessaries of life than he could obtain by his honest labour; and in the event of that sickness which was the constant companion of the squalid wretchedness now described, the situation of the criminal invalid was tenfold superior. He did not say this for the purpose of restoring the former severities of prison discipline, but for the purpose of urging, that no comparison ought ever to exist between the culprit who was in a state of punishment and degradation, and the honest labourer who only asked permission to exchange the sweat of his brow for a fair and decent competency.—Out of the various parishes of the county of Bedford, the hon. member quoted two as average' samples of the effect of the present Law of Settlement in confining masses of inhabitants within certain districts where they could not obtain employment. If these, observed the hon. member, were fair average calculations of the state of one county, and that county an average of the agricultural counties of this kingdom, it was not too much to assert that this state of things could not last long. The hon. member then read extracts from the reports of previous committees, which went to admit the necessity of some measure strong in itself, but short of a total repeal of the Law of Settlement. On the subject of litigation he could state, on the authority of the tables lately published by Mr. Sayter Cooke, that, in 1814, the expense of removals and law charges, on this part of the subject alone, was 332,690l.; and, as it was computed that these expenses doubled themselves every twelve years, it might be computed that the present expense was above 600,000l. As to hiring and service, it was made a farce of. In Bucks the farmers of many parishes were mutually bound, under a penalty of from 10l. to 30l., not to give settlement. One noble lord in that county prohibited settlement under a heavy penalty as a clause in his leases; and one gentleman of large fortune in Norfolk actually inserted a penalty of 500l. in his leases, in the event of a fresh settlement being acquired. Under these circumstances, hiring was always evaded, and in fact proscribed.

Mr. Curteis

seconded the motion. He approved of the bill as the first step towards cleansing the Augean Stable of the Poor-laws, the worst part of which was the law relating to hire and service.

Mr. Benett

said, he would oppose the measure on the very ground which obtained for it the support of the hon. member for Sussex; namely, that it was the first step to the destruction of the Poor-laws, which he conceived to be a most wise and humane system.

Mr. S. Bourne

was of opinion, that the best title to settlement was three years' service, as in Scotland. He did not approve of the measure before the House, though he was far from viewing it in the light of an attack upon the Poor-laws. It was his opinion, that if the proposed alteration were carried into effect, personal property would contribute less to the support of the poor than it did at present, and that a greater burthen would be thrown upon the landed interest. He exceedingly doubted the policy of the measure; and did not think it likely to be attended by any advantage.

Mr. Sykes

said, he felt disinclined to support this measure, as he considered it too extensive an alteration of the Poor-laws. The place of a settlement acquired by service was always a matter of great discussion, and it was universally a question whether emancipation was lost on the day of the apprenticeship. These doubts peculiarly attached to apprentices in ships, who, generally, at the end of their service, if the ship happened to be lying in the Thames, spent the last day, or rather night, at some place on shore, and it was afterwards matter of the greatest difficulty to trace them. He had often seen cases, where, from difficulties of this kind, men had been passed and repassed to and from. Hull to London, and back. He trusted that the House would apply their attention, to this subject, and relieve the country from the burthen.

Colonel Wood

thought there was one advantage in this bill, which was, that it went to get rid of the law of hiring—a law to which the hon. member for Wiltshire was opposed. The hon. member wished to substitute a settlement gained by residence, which this bill did not propose; but he trusted that the omission of that provision would not induce the hon. member to reject the bill. With regard to a settlement by residence, he feared there was not much chance of carrying a bill to that effect; for he himself had once proposed that fifteen years' residence might be pleaded in bar of removal, but his proposition had been thrown out. He thought the present system, which encouraged the practice of hiring for fifty-one weeks, highly objectionable, as it tended to create a bad feeling between the master and his servant, who saw that his hiring was shortened merely that he might be cheated out of his settlement. If the present bill was rejected, he thought the attempt to deal with the evils of the poor system would be utterly hopeless, and that they would go on multiplying, until the whole population was pauperised. He agreed that the 43rd Elizabeth was a charitable and humane law; and as that was not the law which had introduced hiring and service as the means of gaining a settlement, this bill would not affect it. But the mode of settlement fixed by the statute of William and Mary ought to be altered. The provisions of that act were evaded by nine out of ten parishes in the kingdom; and if they were taken away, we should return to settlement by parentage, which, after a long lapse of years, was the best mode of settlement a poor man could have recourse to. By the present law and the practice to which he had alluded, the rich were set against the poor; and the latter, when offered a hiring for fifty-one weeks, must accept it, with all its disadvantages, or be a pauper in his younger years. He was in favour of the present change, as he thought it must be a change for the better.

Mr. Ridley Colburne

said, he had some doubts which the right hon. gentleman below him had not succeeded in getting rid of. In one point the bill was good, as it would tend to diminish litigation. By the abolition, too, of the present Law of Settlement, we should gain the advantage of making the farmers return to the old system of domiciling their servants; which would tend materially to decrease the temptations and opportunities for crimes. Under the present system, the attachment of the servants to the master was much diminished, while it must be the wish of every man to see it increase. If a servant at the end of the year knew he might be dismissed; although the connexion might be continued at the end of the time, the chain might be renewed, but the link would be broken. But if it was not continued, the remaining number of days would be spent in debauchery. For these reasons, he should vote for the second reading of the bill, at the same time, he was not satisfied with all its provisions.

Mr. Leycester

said, that the quibbles arising out of the Poor-laws furnished half the business of the quarter sessions. He agreed as to the evils of the system of settlement by hiring and service. A change of it would improve the character of the labourer; and if he should ultimately be obliged to go to the parish for relief, he had better ask it from those who had known him from his birth, than receive it from the reluctant hospitality of strangers. He was glad that the proposer of this measure had not indiscreetly attacked the whole system, as the only way of improvement was, gradually to put an end to one evil after another.

Mr. N. Calvert

thought it would be impossible to change the present system without doing so for the better. He should support the motion, in the hope that it would do some good; if it succeeded, some hon. gentleman could carry it further.

Mr. Monck

thought the bill ought to be entertained so far as the second reading. He went into a statement of the provisions of the statutes now in existence, and of the evils arising from the multiplicity of litigation they produced. It was said, that it was a hardship to send men away from London, where they might have resided for years, to the place of their birth, where they might be hardly known; but that evil would not be so great, as the one which now existed in another shape; for if persons were confined to the places of their birth for settlement, they would not be so apt to enter into imprudent marriages, but would lay by money to support themselves in their latter days. On the other hand, while the gaining a settlement, by residence was so easy, they would go into rich parishes, such as Mary-le-bone, and look to the parish for ultimate support. The practice of conferring a settlement by hiring was now almost abrogated by common consent. The bill, therefore, was but a return to the old system: for these reasons he should support it.

Mr. Cripps

thought there were many objections to the present measure, and was not sanguine in his hopes of its putting an end to litigation. He should, however, vote for its second reading, reserving his doubts for another occasion.

Lord Althorpe

said, that no proposition upon this subject could be made which was not liable to objection. Certain it was, that settlements by hiring and service occasioned a vast deal of litigation, and that litigation led to perjury; the labourer swearing one way, and the farmer the other. He supported the bill principally because he thought it would lessen both, and give the servant an additional motive to good conduct. The strongest objection to the bill was that which arose out of the situation of menial servants; but it did not counterbalance the advantages of the proposed change.

Mr. Slaney

complimented the hon. member for Bedfordshire, on the industry, research, and ability, he had shewn in treating this question. He, therefore, differed from him with great reluctance, although, on the balance, he thought he should be warranted in supporting the bill. The increased expenses to which parishes were put arose out of the increased pauperism and misery among the agricultural labourers. He did not attribute this state of things as matter of blame to any one, but the fact was, that between four and five millions of the most industrious of the community, while all other classes were improving, were suffering the greatest deprivations. A long war, and other circumstances connected with it, over which the government had no control, had produced this calamity; but now that peace had returned, and men were turning their minds to schemes of improvement, he trusted an effort would be made by the House on behalf of servants employed in agriculture. He was convinced that many of the existing causes of distress might be removed.

Sir E. H. East

contended, that nine tenths of the litigation at quarter-sessions arose out of questions of hiring and service, and of the perjury, out of the parole evidence given to support claims to settlement.

Mr. Portman

admitted the force of the objection urged by the right hon. member (Mr. S. Bourne), relative to domestic servants, but he thought it applied less than was generally imagined, inasmuch as the object of all domestic servants was to acquire property in their journey through the world, and to return to the parish in which by birth they had gained a settlement. The question for the House to consider was, whether by the bill it would be rendered more or less difficult to lose a settlement. If it increased the difficulty of losing a settlement, a new and beneficial era of legislation on this subject would be established. In the committee, consisting of twenty members, no less than eighteen had divided in favour of the present measure, and only two against him.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he approached this subject with the greatest hesitation, as he had had no practical experience of the effect of the Poor-laws. He had listened with the greatest attention to the arguments for and against the measure, and he never recollected an instance where it was so difficult to say which side preponderated. What had been stated by the hon. member who spoke last, regarding the division in the committee, was deserving of consideration. All the members of the Select body were, no doubt, actuated by the same desire to arrive at a just conclusion, yet eighteen had divided one way and only two the other. So far as the authority of numbers went, this decision was entitled to great weight; but he could not help wishing that the eighteen had favoured the House with their reasons for being precisely of the same opinion. A report on a subject involving so many complicated considerations, and requiring so much reference, not merely to the Law of Settlement, but to the Poor-laws in general, would certainly have been of great value. To decide only, "That the Chairman be instructed to move the House for leave to bring in a bill to repeal the Acts relating to Hiring and Service," had certainly the advantage of being brief; but he could not say that it was equally satisfactory. The question now was, whether the measure so recommended should be read a second time; and after listening with great pleasure to his right hon. friend (Mr. S. Bourne), he was bound to admit, that some of his arguments deserved the greatest consideration. One of the most important was that which applied to domestic servants; and to that no satisfactory answer had been given. At the same time, he did not despair that some provision might be discovered with reference to their case. If the second reading of the bill were now negatived, of course all possibility of this kind must be at an end. It appeared to him, that as the Poor-laws, at the present moment, were in a great measure the support of the poor, it deserved very serious consideration whether the House, by agreeing to the bill, would not be passing a measure to transfer from personal property a charge now borne by it, and so far to cast an additional burthen upon the land. He must say, that he should be inclined to listen with favour to any argument, founded in justice, which went to increase the proportion of weight of this kind to be sustained by personal property, and so far to relieve the land by shifting the present accumu- lation. As there was at present a law in operation in populous and prosperous towns, having the effect of subjecting personal property to the maintenance of the deserving poor, he thought it a decided objection to any measure, which tended to relieve personal property and to load real estates. On the other hand, his right hon. friend had used an argument which he (Mr. Peel) did not think conclusive, when he said that the most industrious and de-serving class of the poor would thus not be entitled to settlements. He thought that one effect of the bill upon the table would be to augment the number of that class—he meant the class which found labour in parishes, but were not entitled to settlements, and who, in some respects, were in as satisfactory a state as poor could be placed in. It was a strong discouragement to a man to apply for parish relief when he knew, not that it would be withheld, but that there would be considerable difficulty in obtaining it, and that he would thus subject himself to be removed to another parish. Thus they became the most deserving and industrious class among the poor; and, as he had before said, the effect of the bill would be to increase that class. It would not deprive any man of a settlement: for no man would remain without a claim on some part of the kingdom; but it would lessen the objection to give a pauper relief who might be in actual need of it. If the question now were, whether the bill should pass into a law, he was not sure to what determination he should come. At present he begged to be understood as pronouncing no positive opinion; and if hereafter he found good reason to vote against the measure, no charge of vacillation could be fairly established against him. He had so firm a reliance on the judgment of his right hon. friend, that he might, even in the next stage arrive at a different conclusion. In the present stage, he voted for the second reading, because he thought, on the whole, that the balance of argument was in its favour.

Sir E. Knatchbull

observed, that he had voted in the minority of two, in the committee, because he did not think that the present system led either to an increase of litigation or perjury.

Sir E. Carrington

spoke in favour of the bill, and expressed his wish that it had gone further. He thought that a settlement should be gained by a certain length of inhabitancy and service, say two or three years, without any reference to the nature of the hiring. Great encouragement would then be given to the honest husbandman, who would know that, by regularity and industry, after he had entered his name with the parish clerk, he could obtain a settlement where he wished.

The motion was agreed to.