HC Deb 06 April 1830 vol 23 cc1406-10
Lord Nugent

, after presenting a Petition from labourers of an hundred in Buckinghamshire, complaining of distress, and attributing a great portion of their misery to the injurious administration of the Poor-laws, proceeded to move for leave to bring in a Bill to enable parishes to make bet- ter provision for the employment of their Poor. This Bill related to a subject which, he was sorry to say, deeply affected a very large number of persons connected with agricultural pursuits. It deeply affected the rent-payers, the farmers, and, through them, the land-owners; but, which was in his view more important still, it operated also materially upon the means of life—upon the virtue or vice, the happiness or misery, of that most unfortunate class, the labouring class. The misfortunes of this class were generally admitted, and it was the duty of that House, therefore,—nay, it was called upon by justice, policy, and humanity—to relieve them. It had been said, that the operation of the Poor-laws, and more particularly the operation of certain parochial customs which were against law, had deteriorated the character of the labouring population, and degraded them to a state from which they had neither the hope nor the desire of emerging. If this were true, and he was afraid there was too much of reality in it, it was only saying that the vices of the system had become so oppressive and so dangerous, that it was our duty to eradicate them effectually. The object against which his Bill was particularly directed was the roundsmen system,—or the custom of paying labourers out of the parish rates. In other words, the system which he wished to have altered | was the substitution of parochial relief for the fair and adequate wages of labour. This system, though it had been declared to be illegal, had taken such deep root, and assumed so many forms in some places, that it was extremely difficult to deal with it. It took so many shapes to avoid detection, that like the monster in the fable, it would require the power of another Antæus to overcome it— Ubi nulla fugam reperit fallacia, victus In sese redit. If he could point out any plan by which this evil could be remedied, he had no doubt the House would pay attention to his Bill. He wished, therefore, to make it the interest of parishes to adopt those, means by which he thought the system would be got rid of. And first, as to the evil, and the operation of it on the labouring classes. A committee of that House reported, in 1824, that in a certain parish in Sussex, the wages of labour had been reduced by this system to 6d. a day. Since that period, now six years ago, the evil had not diminished. In the district in which he lived, there were many parishes, and to the shame of those parishes he spoke it, in which, by the wicked and illegal system of paying labourers out of the Poor-rates, the weekly rate of wages for an able-bodied unmarried labourer, had been reduced to 3s., or 3s. 6d. It was impossible that they could live on this; and yet, if they refused it, they could get nothing, for the parish would not relieve them, and the farmer would not employ them. When he stated this, he had not, he was sorry to say, stated the worst. In the course of the late dreadful winter, this sum of 3s., or 3s. 6d. per week was for no less than three weeks in abeyance. In saying this it might be told him, that he was destroying his own case, by proving too much; for the miserable people, having no credit, must have ceased to exist, from absolute want. His answer however, was, that the fact was as he had stated it to be, and that he was ready to prove it by evidence. This was sufficient for him, for he could hardly be called upon to prove how these unfortunate beings contrived to live, or how they starved, or to what extent they stole, or to what extent they were indebted to private charity for the means of subsistence. In justice to these men, however, he must say that he did not believe they did steal; and he stated it as a circumstance highly to the credit of a peasantry labouring under such fearful privations, that at the last Assizes held in the county the calendar was lighter than he had known it to be for some time past. None but a person who had attended Petty Sessions could form an idea of the extent of the misery produced by this system. Men, young and old, women past the age for labour, and women with children in their arms, came before the magistrates for relief. The men professed their readiness to work, and the overseer said, "It is quite true these men are willing to labour, but we have no employment for them: and as to relieving them, we cannot collect the poor-rates." What could the magistrates do? They could direct the overseer to distrain; but such a course would, in many cases, only add fresh paupers to the list. While he was thus detailing the miserable condition of the labouring classes, he was not unmindful of the state in which the farmers were, or of the invidious duties which an overseer had to perform. He recollected both; but of this he was quite sure,—namely, that if the evil went on increasing, and the severities of another winter came upon this wretched peasantry, nothing but an armed force could keep them down and make them starve in quiet. Something, then, it was evident must be done, and that speedily. He proposed, in the first place, to give the magistrates power to grapple with the roundsmen system, in parishes which may be convinced that the system was injurious. The provisions of his Bill were not obligatory, except in allowing two-thirds of the parish to bind the remainder. He was aware that it was not prudent in the mover of a bill to enter into the details of it when he asked for leave to bring it in, and he would not enter into the details of this. He would state only generally, that what he proposed would be in the nature of a labour-rate; but not open to the objection, which none could feel more strongly than he did—namely, that it would subside into the very thing which it was his object to guard against. His Bill would proceed on three principles—first, it would encourage the occupiers of lands to employ as much labour as possible on the lands in their occupation. There would, of course, be no compulsion here, for nothing could be so absurd as to oblige a man to employ more labour than he pleased; but it would merely encourage and hold out an inducement to the employment of labour. The second principle was, that it was desirable to lower the Poor-rates; and if money must be paid for the support of the labourer, that labour should be given in exchange for that money. The third principle was, to give to labour a fair and open market by competion, in order to secure as liberal a compensation as possible to the labourer; and in this view he would make the bargain to be carried on between the labourer and the hirer without the farmer being brought face to face with the overseer. His great object was, to get rid of the roundsmen system, and therefore it would not be necessary to apply it to those parishes where that system was not practised. Though the Bill differed in many respects from that which was called the property-plan used in some parts of Oxfordshire, yet in others it was founded upon part of that plan. The noble Lord concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to promote the employment of the Poor, by free hiring and fair remuneration for their labour.

Mr. Lennard

said, he would not oppose the bringing in the Bill, but would beg to suggest to his noble friend that certain parties should be exempted from its operation; for instance, farmers who cultivated their farms by their own labour and that of their sons, and that persons so employing labourers should not be thereby qualified to vote at vestries. With such exemptions, he thought the Bill would be likely to do much good.

Lord Nugent

was aware of the difficulties in the way of parts of the plan, but he would endeavour to meet them as well as he could.

Mr. R. Colborne

thought this one of those general measures which were sometimes adopted to remedy local evils; the evil which it went to cure was not the fault of the law, but of the mode in which it was administered, and showed the bad effects of interfering in any manner, by legislative measures, with the wages of labour.

Lord J. Russell

feared, that on the second reading of the Bill, he should be obliged to object to it altogether.

Leave was then given to bring in the Bill.