HC Deb 28 June 1831 vol 4 cc445-55
Mr. Weyland

, in moving for leave to bring in a Bill to explain and amend the law of Settlement by Hiring and Service, observed, that it was the duty of a government to adopt such regulations as should be generally beneficial to all classes of the community. It was clear, that no country could be safe in which the condition of the labouring classes was degraded and servile, and for society to be lasting, it must, like a temple, be based upon a broad and solid foundation. The middle and the upper classes were in a favourable condition, but if we looked at the situation, moral and political, of the labouring classes in these countries, we should find it decidedly bad. In Ireland the people were actually starving in the midst of plenty, and in England crimes were rapidly multiplying, because the people found it difficult to obtain a livelihood. There was, too, a growing spirit of discontent, which not unfrequently extended to outrage. Perhaps it had been fomented by some infamous publications, but it undoubtedly had its chief cause in the fact, that the labourers shared in none of the advantages of an improving community. He did not mean to enter into all the causes for them, but would confine himself to that which he proposed to remove, he meant the impediments thrown in the way of a free circulation of labour by the operation of the law of Settlement, and the Poor-laws. In many parishes there was a glut of labourers, which could be removed and taken up by employment in other places, were the obstacles alluded to clone away with. Such an observation was the result of his own experience, but he was able to corroborate it by the testimony of others. A petition then on the Table of the House said— "Your petitioners feel themselves justified in stating, that the laws of Settlement are opposed to such free circulation of labour, as is essential to the peace and lasting prosperity of the country, because, amongst other pernicious results, they congregate indefinite numbers of people able to work in spots where frequently no work is to be obtained; and the result, therefore, is, that the property of the inhabitants of such parishes, is sacrificed to provide an unearned maintenance for the idle and dissolute. Their experience proves that the law of Settlement is fatally opposed to that unrestrained circulation of labour which ought to be admitted in every free country, as being essential to its prosperity." They said also—"That they believe that the late alarming disturbances in this kingdom, were occasioned (at least in part) by the operation of the Poor-laws, by which an undue accumulation of the working classes is concentrated in many of our towns and villages, and which also unreasonably decree the performance of what is morally and physically impossible—namely, that an indefinite and rapidly increasing population, should for ever be provided with work and maintenance within certain fixed parochial boundaries." The object of his Bill was, to remedy this defect, and secure a free interchange of labour between agricultural parishes in which labourers were superabundant, and other places where labourers were in request. At present, the fear of conferring a Settlement, by hiring, and thus of entailing a burthen on the parish, prevented men from freely hiring labourers. One provision of the Bill was, that after its passing no person should be taken to have a settlement from being hired a certain time in any place. He trusted to see the time when the law of Settlement would be altogether done away with, and when poverty would be relieved wherever found, as he believed was the case in Scotland. The change which he proposed, too, would remove that litigation and great expense now incurred to determine Settlement by hiring. It was a fact, that four-fifths of the appeals as to Settlements to the Quarter Sessions, were on questions arising out of hiring and service. The expense thus incurred, and which was all to be paid out of the Poor-rates, was estimated at not less than 400,000l. in the year. If he were asked why he did not make his Bill more extensive, he must reply, that he did not think it fair to expose the agricultural districts to be burthened, as they then would be, with all the persons whose best days had been employed in promoting the prosperity, not of the landed-interest, in the place where they were born, but of the manufacturers in distant towns. The alteration which he proposed to make, would tend greatly to improve the character of our labouring population, more particularly those engaged in husbandry—an object in which every man who regarded the welfare of his country must feel an interest. In fact, the moral and political condition of the poorer classes could no longer be neglected with safety to the State, and if success did not attend their deliberations, he could look forward to nothing but calamity and continual danger. If, indeed, their condition could be improved, he saw before the country a long career of prosperity, solid and lasting, because it would be founded on the principles of justice, and might be expected to meet the approbation, and draw down the blessings of Him, who was justice itself. The hon. Member concluded, by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to alter and amend the law relating to Settlement by Hiring and Service.

Mr. Adeane

seconded the Motion. He observed, that the Bill introduced by his hon. friend was nearly the same as that which he had introduced in the last Session, and which, like many others, was stopped by the dissolution. One object of the Bill was an improvement in the character and condition of the labouring classes, and on that ground alone it deserved the support of the House. If its object were an amendment of the Poor-laws, he would oppose it, because he felt that no palliatives would do for that system. The principle on which our Poor-laws rested was erroneous, and the whole system should be altered, but that could be done only by Government. From what he had recently heard, however, in another place, he was disposed to believe, that it meant to take the matter up, and in its hands he was willing to leave it, merely observing, that there was no branch of legislation from which the country would derive more benefit, than from an entire and judicious revision of the Poor-laws.

Mr. Slaney

admitted the importance of attending to the condition of the labouring classes, and declared, that any measure calculated to effect that, in ever so slight a degree, should have his support. Earnestly, indeed, did he hope, that the Government would take up the subject, and in particular, after what had happened last year, would endeavour to improve the condition of the labourers in the South of England. It was, indeed, lamentable to contemplate the state in which the labourers of sixteen of the southern counties of England were placed by the manner in which the Poor-laws were administered; and if he had not, either in this Session or the last, called attention to the subject, it was because he hoped, that the Government were about to take the matter into their own hands. In the North, the wages were high, and rates low, and the poor man was in a situation of comparative comfort; while in the South, the system of paying wages out of the poor-rates had reduced both labourer and farmer to great difficulty and distress. The system of roundsmen was there adopted, and the poor labourer, though willing to work, and actually employed, was degraded to the condition of a pauper. He could mention a variety of instances in illustration of this system, but would state only one. In a parish in the county of Northampton, there was lately a turn out amongst the labourers for higher wages. On inquiry, he learned that these men were paid 6d. a day wages, and that the remainder was made up out of the Poor-rates. Could such a system be continued, without degrading the condition of the labouring poor? No attention, however great, paid to them in other respects, could prevent their depression and degradation while exposed to the evils of such a system. If Gentlemen would view this matter merely as a question affecting their own interests, they would find, that those interests would be promoted in a much greater degree, by giving to the labourers high wages, and having low Poor-rates, than by the present system. He was fully convinced, for example, that the landowners of Northumberland, with their high rate of wages and their better system, were in a flourishing condition compared with the landlords of Sussex, where wages were reduced to the lowest pittance which would support life; and he hoped the time was not distant, when the landlords of the South would be satisfied of that fact, and labour to assimilate their system to that of the North. With respect to the Bill of the hon. Member, he would only observe, that by taking away a settlement by hiring, an additional burthen and additional expense of litigation was thrown on the other methods of obtaining a settlement—those of the derivative character, for instance, which required a man's parentage to be fully established; but that, as well as other questions of greater nicety, were matter for future consideration, Without, however, going into details, he would observe, in reference to the principle, that the man who had no settlement in the place where he worked, was generally found to be the most diligent workman. He felt, that he was thrown upon his own resources, and that neglect or inattention, causing an application to the parish officers, would be followed by his removal; he therefore used all his diligence to prevent it, and was generally successful. However, attending to this part of the question would not cure the great evil felt in the southern districts, where the population of labourers was greater than the demand, and where, from the system on which the Poor-laws were administered, it was almost impossible for the redundant population to get work. For instance, in a place which would require the labour of twenty men, twenty-five were kept, and the extra five were prevented from obtaining work elsewhere. That was combined with the erroneous system of giving a fixed sum in money to a man according to the number of his children, which was a bonus upon improvident marriages, and where this system prevailed, marriages were entered into, in reliance on the parish, which was bound to provide relief according to the size of a family, and in this way the evil went on increasing, until it would be too great for any remedy. In the northern counties— as for example Northumberland—no such bonus was held out, and improvident marriages were not contracted. If a man applied to his parish for relief, he was set to work at a fixed rate, much less than what he would get if he had employment elsewhere: he soon got tired of such unprofitable labour, and, generally speaking, was then sure to find work for himself, and the parish got rid of him. If, however, he were sent out to work at reduced wages, the parish making up the difference to him out of the Poor-rates—and giving him an increase according to the number of his children—the burthen would be continued, and, in a short lime, instead of affording relief to an industrious man, unable for the moment to get work elsewhere, the parish would have to support a degraded, discontented and profligate being. The whole system of the southern counties was bad, and he was certain that the Government and the House would be compelled to do something more for the poor than build cottages, and that the time was not distant, when, if they did not bestir themselves, the state of the labouring classes would be such as to lay waste the morality and the prosperity of the country.

Mr. Hunt

expressed a hope that Ministers would not lend their sanction to the proposed measure, which he was sure would fail of its effect. Could any thing be a greater hardship, than to deprive a man of a settlement in a parish in which he had resided, and worked honestly and industriously, for twenty-five or thirty years, and send him back to the place of his birth? He was aware of the evil, not of the Poor-laws, but of their misapplication. The Poor-laws he believed to be the wisest and most humane set of laws that were ever devised; and if they were properly administered, would be a blessing instead of a curse, as they were now too often found to be. The fault lay with those Magistrates who, instead of providing labour for those willing to work, gave them money. He did not believe, that the Bill would be of any use, but, giving the hon. Member credit for his exertions, he would not oppose the Motion.

Mr. Bennett

agreed that it would be a good thing to get rid of the Settlement by hiring, but not that by service. He thought that a settlement by service would be most salutary, for he agreed with the hon. member for Preston, that it would be a great hardship to deny a settlement to a man who had worked in a parish for several years. It would be a matter of extreme difficulty to amend the Poor-laws. Many attempts of the kind had been made of late years, and all of them had failed. The first, he remembered, was that made by Sir James Scarlett, who gave up his Bill. Mr. Nolan subsequently took the matter in hand, he was followed by Mr. Sturges Bourne, who was followed by the hon. member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Slaney), but none of them had succeeded. He agreed that the Poor-laws were a wise and salutary code; but the mal-administration of them led to serious evils. Objections had been made to the system in the southern and western counties, but he denied that the Magistrates there were to blame. They gave money as relief, but what could be clone where a man had eight or ten children, and only 8s. or 10s. a week? The children could not work, but must be supported. If an extra demand for labour was created at one time, population would increase, but when the persons employed were thrown out of work, either by the effect of machinery, or by a change in the fashions, they must be supported, or the greatest distress and misery would prevail in the country. If people would have children—in England depending on the Poor-laws— and in Ireland on the potatoe—he did not see how we could avoid giving them support. He was glad to find, that the hon. member for Kerry at last admitted that the time was come, when some kind of Poor-laws should be established in Ire-lane; but, he hoped, that if introduced there, it would be on a system different from the Poor-laws of England, or, at least, that the application of the principle would be different.

Mr. Courtenay

said, that previous to Christmas, he asked the noble Lord (Lord Althorp) whether Government intended to institute any inquiry into the state of the labouring classes. The noble Lord then stated, that no such intention was entertained by Government, because there had been already sufficient evidence given on the subject, and that Government would rather proceed to the consideration of some measure. He now wished to know from the noble Lord whether Government was prepared to submit any measure to the House for the amendment of the Poor-laws, or the relief of the labouring classes?

Lord Althorp

stated, that the subject alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman had received, as it undoubtedly required, the serious attention of Government; but there was no measure in such a state of preparation as to justify him in saying that it would be brought forward by Government. With respect to the Bill under the consideration oft he House, he, for one, would offer no opposition to its introduction. He considered that it would be advantageous to get rid of the obstruction which was opposed to the free circulation of labour by the settlement obtained from service. At the same time he did not see how that good could be affected by the Bill, without increasing the causes of litigation. Another great improvement would be, to bring the administration of the Poor-laws in the southern part of the kingdom to the state in which it was in the northern part. But the difficulty of the task, always great, would be increased at the present moment; because the change could not be effected without, in the first instance, pressing severely on the labouring classes. He was sure that the House would agree with him in thinking; that the present was not the time to adopt any measure which would have such an effect. Still he believed that until the Poor-laws were administered in the manner in which they were in the northern part of the country, and until money ceased to be paid to labourers on account of the number of their children, or as an assistance to the farmers, no effectual amelioration of the present state of the labouring classes could be effected. But, as he said before, any attempt to remedy the evils of the Poor-laws, upon correct principles, would be attended by severe pressure upon the poor, and an attempt at relief made upon incorrect principles would only render it more difficult for them to retrace their steps.

Mr. Courtenay

wished it to be under-Stood that his question was intended solely to elicit information, and he had no wish to cast any censure on his Majesty's Government.

Mr. Sadler

maintained, that the chief intention of the Poor-laws was to relieve the poor man who was overcharged with children, as was evident from the very first clause of the celebrated Act of Elizabeth. That, too, was the opinion of men of the highest authority. The merciful consideration of the community ought always to be extended to an individual in that situation. Who could be more entitled to admiration and relief than the man with a large family who, after long struggling with difficulties, was at length compelled to full recumbent on the charity of his country? Locke, however some hon. Gentlemen might smile at his name, was of a similar opinion. The Government of that day committed the consideration of the Poor-laws to him, and he came to the conclusion, that a poor man with more than a certain number of children was entitled, on grounds of policy as well as humanity, to relief. It was argued, that the perversion of the Poor-laws led to numerous and improvident marriages. Now, it would be found that in the northern counties, where such abuses were said not to exist, the marriages were more numerous in proportion to the population, than in the counties where the mal-ad-ministration of the Poor-laws was said to produce those effects. He had voluntarily engaged in the administration of the Poor-laws, and his experience enabled him to deny the justice of the censures cast upon the mode of administering them. He was of opinion with Sir Frederick Morton Eden, that although there might be occasional exceptions, the general administration of the Poor-laws in this country was liable to as few objections as the general administration of any other system of laws whatever.

Mr. Slaney

said, he had never argued that a poor man with a large family ought not to receive assistance, but only that that assistance ought not to be rendered him in money, and Mr. Locke, whom his hon. friend had quoted, expressly said so. His object was, not to lower the condition of the poor, but to raise their wages.

Mr. Sadler

had no intention of imputing to the hon. Member any designs inimical to the poor; to whom, on the contrary, he was well aware that the hon. Gentleman was a sincere, genuine, and indefatigable friend; but he thought him wrong on one point.

Mr. Strickland

supported the proposed measure, which he considered one of sound sense. No great change could be accomplished in the Poor-laws without time and caution. In his opinion Poor-laws ought to be introduced into Ireland; but that must be done with great care. He was sorry to say, that the evils which existed on this subject in the South of England were creeping into the north. One of those evils was that of a settlement being obtained by one year's service. Numerous devices were adopted to escape granting this settlement. Some farmers hired their servants only for fifty weeks. The most injurious plan was, to suspend hiring them for a month, which subjected the labourers to great want and distress. He thought that eventually there ought to be no settlement except by birth; but such an object must be aimed at with great deliberation and caution.

Mr. Paget

stated, that in many parts of England the effect of the Poor-laws was an absolute confiscation of the lands. Could such a system go on? The national faith was dwelt upon with reference to some subjects. No one was more disposed to maintain it than he was; but he hoped the principle would be extended to every description of property. The present system of Poor-laws pressed heavily, not only on the once happy farmers and land proprietors of this once happy country, but also on the poor themselves, since it produced in every man a disposition to throw the burthen off from his own shoulders to those of his neighbour. The time was approaching when in many parishes the landed proprietors would be unable to give the poor subsistence. The pressure was at present unequally distributed. If it were spread over the whole country, it would be comparatively light; but at present, in many cases, it amounted to confiscation.

Mr. James

said, that Mr. Sturges Bourne's Vestry Act had had a great effect upon the operation of the Poor-laws. Previous to the passing of that Act, the Magistrates possessed the power to order what relief they thought proper to be given to the poor; but that power was now, in many instances, exercised by the Select Vestries; and they very often neg- lected to allow a sufficient provision to be made.

Mr. Weyland

had some doubts, since he had heard the observations of hon. Members, whether his Bill would diminish litigation as much as he expected. As to the Poor-laws he highly approved of them in principle, and would never consent to part with them.

Leave given, and Bill brought in.