HC Deb 11 November 1830 vol 1 cc409-20
Mr. Spring Rice

moved "That a Select Committee be appointed to take into consideration the state of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, and the best means of improving their condition; and to report their observations thereon to the House." The hon. Member explained, that his object was, to revive the Committee which sat last Session, adding a few Members and filling up the places of those who were no longer in Parliament.

Mr. Grattan

rose, to move an Amendment to the Motion of his hon. friend. He admitted that the names of the Gentlemen selected were most respectable, but they were, unfortunately, Gentlemen who had strong opinions against the measure of giving relief to Ireland by any system of Poor-laws. Of all the Members of the Committee, there were only ten or eleven favourable to such a measure. This might be inferred from the fact, that in the last Report, which extended to fifty-seven pages, and which, with the Appendix of evidence, occupied four large volumes, there were only sixteen lines which referred to that measure of relief. The Members of the Committee reminded him of the company of actors who undertook to perform the play of the Prince of Denmark, leaving out the part of Hamlet. Here was a committee appointed for the purpose of considering the state of the Irish poor; and they omitted to take any notice of the only measure by which relief could be effectually and permanently given. He could not consent to a repetition of such a course as that. If committees were to be appointed, let them be composed not entirely of men who had formed and expressed strong opinions on one side of any subject under consideration. The Committee should, at least, be so composed that the investigation would have a chance of being conducted with impartiality and without prejudice. He could not consent to his hon. friend bringing in eighteen or nineteen Irish bills (though, by the way, only two of them were new) from which no practical good could result. Committees had gone on inquiring to an immense extent, and had produced no practical advantage. Much had been said of the state of Ireland, and of the distress existing there, and a vast mass of information on the subject was contained in the volumes already laid on the Table, and yet no effectual measure was proposed. He would rather go without any inquiry at all than inquire without any useful result. The system of committees only tended to delay practical measures. In the last ten years there had been ten committees appointed, which had made reports so voluminous that very few Gentlemen could read them; and now the House was told, that before anything could be done, it must inquire more; it must wait until this committee and the other committee had made their Report. Such a mode of doing business was only wasting time in hearing evidence, and drawing reports, and wasting the public money in having them printed. Then, upon the question of Irish Grand Juries, how long were committees of the House engaged? They sat till the weather became too hot for meeting; and then only one bill was brought in, to regulate one subject, which did not embrace a tithe of the business brought under the consideration of the Committee. Three committees on the employment of the poor had sat also in 1824 and 1825, which published very voluminous reports, and what more would the House want? In fact, the subject had been threshed and re-threshed; and a similar committee had sat in 1826 and 1827. For any practical measure the House already possessed quite sufficient evidence. It was only a waste of the public money, and agitating the subject without any necessity. His hon. friend had got fifty witnesses over from Ireland, and the Reverend Doctor Doyle was one of them; but the evidence of that Gentleman would hardly tally with the views of his hon. friend. He also objected to the manner in which part of the evidence was obtained. He did not like opinions to be elicited by long cross-examination; but wished each witness to state his conviction in his own plain way. He said this, because he had seen a letter some time ago in one of the Irish papers, from a Mr. Jameson, who complained of the usage he received from a committee before which he was examined. Such conduct was to be deprecated, because it looked as if hon. Members were not seeking to come at the truth, but to elicit particular opinions in support of particular theories. He repeat-ed, that the House had before it sufficient evidence to warrant it in proceeding with some legislative measure for the relief of the labouring poor of Ireland, without further delay, or further inquiry by committees, which would end in nothing. The Reports of the Committee would probably be as little to the purpose as the last, in which, out of fifty-seven pages, only sixteen lines were devoted to the subject most deeply connected with the inquiry. The Report gave the House information on a matter well known since the days of Elizabeth, which had been before the public for upwards of two centuries, viz. that the system of the Poor-laws was very good if wisely administered. It was, no doubt, very kind of the Committee to tell the House that it was a waste of time for the Committee to have so occupied themselves. The Book on Ireland, written by the hon. member for Newark, contained more valuable information respecting the state of that country than all the reports that had ever been laid on the Table of the House. He was satisfied, if that hon. Member had been in the House, he would have seconded the Amendment which he begged to propose to the Motion of his hon. friend. The hon. Member moved accordingly, to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the question, in order to add the words, "the state and the condition of the poor of Ireland have been laid before this House, from time to time, by reports of various committees and commissions; that during the last twelve years, not less than ten reports from committees, and ten from commis- sions, and, with them, a great mass of evidence, have been laid on the Table of this House; that it is therefore our opinion that sufficient evidence has been obtained and presented to enable this House to legislate on this subject, and that it is expedient that some legislative measure should be forthwith adopted for the employment and relief of the poor of Ireland."

Mr. Alderman Waithman

said, that it was not from any feeling of indifference to the situation of Ireland, or to the welfare of its people, that he stated that he was completely tired out with hearing hon. Members from that country continually moving for committees, and complaining of the distress prevalent there. He would suggest, that it would be infinitely better if hon. Members would bring forward specific motions, instead of night after night occupying the House with debates, and then moving for the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire. He agreed with the observations which fell from the hon. member for Wicklow, respecting the inefficacy of all inquiries before committees. He did not intend to oppose the motion of the hon. member for Limerick, for he entertained no objection to appointing a committee, provided he had not to serve upon it; but he was convinced, not only from the reports of a number of committees appointed to inquire into the state of Ireland, but also by reports on various subjects, that it was folly to expect that any good could result from the labours of a Select Committee. He never remembered any good practical measure which had originated in a committee. It ought to be the business of Government to take up a grievance and apply a remedy, for it must necessarily have better opportunities than any committee to get information. Suppose a committee to agree in a report, and recommend the enactment of some measure to Parliament, it could not be carried into effect unless it met with the approbation and support of Government. With regard to the observations which had been made respecting the distress in the two countries, he could only say, that the distress and the evils of both countries arose from the same source, and the same measure of relief might efficaciously be applied to both. He called upon Ministers to reduce our enormous establishments, and to effect savings to such an extent, that the people might be relieved from the load of taxation which now pressed them to the earth. It had been stated, that Ireland was over-peopled; that the inhabitants were, in consequence, in a most wretched condition; and that they came to England, reducing, by the competition of Irish and English labour in the market, our peasantry to the same miserable situation as that in which they were placed. The persons who made this statement forgot that nearly all the produce of Ireland was brought to the English market, and that the people, as a matter of course followed it. He heard, a few evenings ago, an hon. Member declare, that all the commodities produced there were brought to the English market. Another hon. Member, only a night or two ago, complained that the Irish pigs were brought into the English market in such numbers that it materially injured the English farmer in the West of England. It had been stated, that there were four million acres of wasteland in Ireland, capable of being cultivated. If there be a surplus population in that country, distribute that land amongst the people, and we shall then prevent the influx of the Irish labourers into England, which is so much exclaimed against. Again, let them keep and eat their own pigs and cattle, and then we should hear no more complaints from the English farmer on the subject. That appeared to him a very simple remedy for an evil which so much alarmed some hon. Members. All the misery and distress of the people arose from the bad constitution of the Legislature, and from the gross abuses existing in the Government. There had been report upon report, and committee upon committee on the state of Ireland, and what good had resulted from all their labours? He did not wish to call the attention of the House or the Government to the condition of Ireland in particular, but generally to that of the country, in which the distress was really alarming. The evils which existed in Ireland also existed to nearly the same extent in England; and the grounds for inquiry were, therefore, as strong in the one case as in the other. If any one had an intention to move for a committee to inquire into the origin of the distresses of both countries, with a view to get at a remedy, he should not oppose the Motion, although he did not think a Select Committee a very convenient instrument for getting at truth. It was the duty of Ministers to point out remedies for the evils, both of Ireland and England; and if they were not able to do so, they ought to resign their places. At present, one Member got up one night to move for a committee to inquire into one subject; and the next night another Member moved for a committee on some other subject, and no good was ever attained. Sending a measure to a committee was sending it to its grave, and though he had no wish to oppose the hon. Member, he was inclined to object to his Motion.

Mr. Brownlow, could not help expressing his surprise at the observations of the hon. member for Wicklow, and at the Amendment he had proposed. In the former discussion of this evening the hon. Member expressed himself in favour of the principle of the Subletting Act, and immediately afterwards voted for the repeal of it. If the hon. Member was favourable to that measure, why turn round, immediately after his declaration in behalf of it, and vote against it? The hon. Member now says, that he cannot see what benefit can possibly result from the labours of a committee, on a subject like the present. He has also stated, that he laments the situation of those who have been turned out of their homes through the operation of the Subletting Act; he has urged, that a number of miserable creatures will be scattered over the surface of the land, without any one knowing what is to become of them; for the purpose of solving that question, his hon. friend, the member for Limerick, moved for the present committee; and he, therefore, was much surprised that the hon. Member should oppose the Motion. The hon. Member stated, that the subject had been repeatedly inquired into before committees, and always without any useful result. But that was not the case. The objection which he urged against the members of the Committee, being most of them unfavourable to the introduction of a system of Poor-laws into Ireland, was without foundation. He was himself favourable to the introduction of a modified system of Poor-laws into that country; therefore desirous that the subject should be examined before the Committee; but during the last Session of Parliament, the time of the Committee was occupied with other subjects, and it was understood that a motion should be made for its re-appointment this Session, with a view to continue the investigations on this subject. He could not resume his seat without alluding to the charge brought against his hon. friend, the Chairman of that Committee, of going into the inquiry with a view of supporting one side of the question. He was satisfied that every member of that committee would bear testimony to the impartiality, the judgment, and the attention which that hon. Member displayed, and to his great industry and zeal in furtherance of the object of inquiry.

Mr. Phillip H. Howard

wished to state, in. a very few words, his reason for supporting a modified system of Poor-laws for Ireland, which, he conceived, would be attended with great benefit to both countries. He was satisfied, that the feeling of the large county which he had the honour to represent was favourable to the introduction of such a system, and he believed that such a feeling was becoming general. He knew that a very strong wish was manifested by English farmers for such a measure. It was a matter of general complaint, that the expense of maintaining the Irish pauper population fell, not upon the Irish aristocracy and landlords, but upon the middle classes of this country, who were so reduced that they were struggling for existence. The English labourer, also, was daily descending lower in the scale, and his condition was materially deteriorated by the great competition in the labour-market. The circumstances of the English labourer had been reduced by the great influx of the Irish peasantry, and the misery which prevailed in Ireland was spreading rapidly here. The condition of the Irish peasantry would have been infinitely better had there been a system of Poor-laws in that country; and some provision for the poor of Ireland was now necessary for the welfare of both countries. A tax for the support of the Irish poor was the only tax which could be imposed on the absentees of that country, compatible with the institutions of a free country, and he should like to see such a tax levied as would reach the great estates of absentee proprietors. Such a tax would operate as a protection to the rate-payers in England, and would greatly improve the condition and character of the Irish peasantry.

Mr. O'Brien

did not desire to disparage the labours of the Committee of last Session, on the subject of the Irish poor, but he could not find that any useful measure had resulted from its labours. The Committee was occupied in examinations which appeared to him to have nothing to do with the object of inquiry. With respect to the question of the Poor-laws, he should be loth to trust to the Report of any committee on a matter of such vital importance, and still less to one constituted as the late one was. What could be expected from a committee from which the hon. member for Wicklow and the hon. member for Newark were carefully excluded? If, therefore, the Committee was re-appointed, he should propose that the names of those two hon. members and that of the hon. member for Banbury, be added.

Mr. Vernon Smith

could not neglect the opportunity of paying his tribute of respect to the Chairman of the Committee for the industry, judgment, and impartiality which he had exhibited on all occasions. He needed no other proof of this than the Report on the Table, which was a sufficient evidence of these virtues. With respect to the Poor-laws, the Committee postponed its labours on that point, because it had not sufficient evidence to form a determination, and it resolved to apply to the House for permission to resume the inquiry. As for the charge that the Chairman was prejudiced against the introduction of Poor-laws, he did not believe it, and in the Report which he drew up there were only eleven lines on the subject, which merely recommend that it should be made a future subject of inquiry. He knew that some persons entertained strong prejudices against the introduction of Poor-laws into Ireland, in consequence of conceiving that it was meant to adopt the English system. That was not the case; no human being would ever think of recommending an anomalous system like the present Poor-laws of this country. Before, however, any step could be taken, it was necessary to get every information on the subject; and there was no better way than by the inquiries of a Committee. He was exceedingly surprised to hear an hon. Member assert, that the Reports on Ireland were little better than waste paper, and that it was a useless expenditure of the public money to print them. He could only say, that he wished the public money might never be spent in a less useful manner. He entered into the Committee with a prejudice in favour of Poor-laws for Ireland; but that prejudice was now much weakened; for, amongst all the numerous witnesses examined by the Committee, there was not one who had a feasible plan for carrying that object into effect. The hon. member for Wicklow was incorrect in asserting that it had been determined, beforehand, not to recommend a system of Poor-laws. Only two plans for the introduction of Poor-rates into Ireland were presented to the Committee—the first was drawn up by Dr. Doyle, and the other by Colonel Page. On inquiry, Dr. Doyle admitted that he was entirely unacquainted with the English system; and Colonel Page admitted that the whole period of his residence in Ireland did not exceed three months. The House, therefore, would not be surprised to hear that neither of those plans met with the approbation of the Committee. If the hon. member for Wicklow had seen the care and attention manifested by the hon. member for Limerick, he would not have charged him with partiality as Chairman of the Committee. No doubt, he put more questions than any other Member, in consequence of the situation which he filled; but in all of them he manifested nothing but a disposition to find out and support truth.

Mr. Spring Rice

meant to confine himself to replying to some of the observations of his hon. friend the member for Wicklow. On bringing this subject forward last year, he entered into a long statement of the motives which induced him to submit it to the consideration of Parliament; and did not, therefore, make any remarks on the present occasion. The hon. Member complained of his silence, but that was dictated by supposing that there would be no objection to the motion. He was less surprised at the complaints, when he heard the hon. Member charge the Committee with being prejudiced on the subject. The hon. member for Wicklow seemed to think that the only matter for inquiry before the Committee was the Poor-laws, and that he (Mr. Rice) was strongly prejudiced against them. But he would appeal to any Gentleman who heard him—to the right hon. Gentleman opposite, who was in the House at the time,—whether he did not distinctly state, on bringing the subject, before Parliament last year, that the question of the introduction of the Poor-laws into Ireland was one that required investigation; acknowledging certainly that, from the best attention he could give the subject, it appeared to him that the introduction of Poor-laws into Ireland would not be beneficial to that country. But as this was a subject which had been recommended as a remedy for the evils of Ireland, the Committee appointed to find out practical remedies should embrace it as one of the topics of its investigation. The hon. Member insinuated, that he had proposed a committee with a view of preventing the introduction of Poor-laws into Ireland; because, when he moved for the appointment of the Committee, he had expressed an opinion unfavourable to those laws. The hon. Gentleman had also insinuated, that the inquiries were directed by the Chairman, and always had a particular leaning; but he should recollect, that although inquiry generally commences with the Chairman, it is not confined to him, and those who are friendly to the principle of the Poor-laws have the opportunity of putting questions as well as those who are not. Did the hon. Member conceive for a moment that it was in the power of any one Member to influence the opinions of a committee of the House? He would read the names of those who constituted the Committee last year, and would ask any man whether he could for one moment think that the members of it would tolerate any one person putting on an appearance of dictation? The first name was Sir John Newport, Sir Robert Peel followed, then came Lord Althorp, Lord Milton, Sir Matthew W. Ridley, Lord Ashley, Mr. Brownlow, who had previously declared himself favourable to the introduction of a system of Poor-laws as the means best calculated to improve and advance the state of the labouring classes in Ireland; and he would take that opportunity of thanking his hon. friend for the attention which he paid to the inquiry before the Committee—Mr. George Dawson, Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald, Mr. Charles Grant, Mr. Huskisson, Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Lamb, Lord Palmerston, Mr. Villiers, Mr. Slaney, and other equally high and honourable men. After mentioning these names, he trusted that it would never be insinuated again that he endeavoured to pack the Committee. The hon. member for Ennis stated, that there was ground of suspicion in consequence of the exclusion of the two hon. Members from the Committee whose names he mentioned. With respect to the hon. member for Wicklow, the avowal of that hon. Member was quite sufficient to shew that he would be a very improper person to be placed on any such committee. After his declaration, that the appointment of the Committee was a mere delusion, and its last Report no better than waste paper, it would have been insulting" him by asking him to take part in its labours; and after such a declaration, he should never invite him to join any committee which he might originate. With respect to the hon. member for Newark, he agreed with the hon. member for Ennis, that a committee on this subject without the hon. member for Newark, must appear incomplete. In the first instance, his name was included in the list of the Committee; and he should have been very glad if that hon. Member would have consented to lend the assistance of his valuable service in furtherance of its objects; but he declined doing so, and stated that he should be unable to attend. He could not, therefore, be charged, in this instance, with unfairness, as it was at the request of the hon. member for Newark that his name was struck out. So much, therefore, for the charge of having acted unfairly in not putting in the names of those two hon. Members. So earnest was he to get from the hon. member for Newark all the information possible, and especially on the subject of the English Poor-laws, with reference to the propriety of adopting a modified system for Ireland, that he asked him to be examined as a witness, but this also that hon. Member declined, notwithstanding he was urged more than once to consent. The hon. and gallant member for Liverpool was also invited, as he was an advocate for the introduction of Poor-laws into Ireland, to attend, and lend us the assistance of his evidence, but he also declined doing so. As a proof that the labours of the Committee were not altogether without use, he might refer to the testimony borne by several hon. Members in the course of the discussion; but it was hardly necessary, as a specific reason had been stated for the re-appointment of the Committee— it had not completed its examination on the subject of the Poor-laws. He had heard with surprise, hon. Members charge the Committee with being prejudiced against the introduction of such a system: all that the Report said was,—"The subject which has occupied the greater portion of the time of your Committee, and that on which the most prolonged examination of witnesses has taken place, is the inquiry how far the Poor-laws of England or of Scot- land, the principles of the 43rd of Elizabeth, or any other system of assessment for the purpose of relief, can be introduced into Ireland with beneficial consequences. Your Committee conceive it wholly impossible to over-estimate the importance of a correct judgment on this subject; involving, as it does, if decided affirmatively, an entire change in the domestic economy of eight millions of persons. A false step may here be of such fatal consequences, that it greatly behoves the Legislature to proceed cautiously, to investigate closely, and to weigh accurately before any final decision is made. In the present state of the Session, your Committee, though fully prepared to consider this branch of the subject, are unwiliing to present any specific Report, in the unavoidable absence of many of their members: they, therefore, content themselves with recommending, that the consideration of the subject may be resumed at a future time; and that, in the mean while, the most severe and scrutinizing attention may be applied to the important evidence already before the House."—The Committee, therefore, had not concluded its investigation, and it gave no opinion. If he did not move for the re-appointment of this Committee, he should be guilty of a breach of duty. He wished, however, to remark, that it was not intended that the Committee should meet more than once before Christmas; and, in the first place, he intended to propose that it should investigate the evidence already taken before proceeding to examine any new witnesses.

Amendment negatived without a division, and Committee appointed.

On the name of Mr. O'Connell

being proposed, the hon. Member said, that he could not consent to be a member of the Committee, as he did not think any good could result from its appointment. There was already a fund in Ireland in the possession of the Church, from which the poor ought to be relieved.