HC Deb 12 June 1834 vol 24 cc385-92

The House, at the forenoon sitting, again went into a Committee for the further consideration of the Poor-laws Amendment Bill.

On Clause 45 being put,

Mr. Cobbett

proposed the following Amendment:—"Provided always, that no regulation be made by which husbands shall be separated from wives, children from their parents, and parents from their children; or for shaving the hair off paupers; or compelling such as seek relief in the workhouses to wear badges, or put distinctive dresses on." If the House, he maintained, did not affirm his Motion, it would tacitly approve the principle which was meant to be negatived by it. It might be said, in answer to this observation, that no such thing as his Motion went to provide against would ever be practised, and that, therefore, there was no necessity for it. Why then, he asked, not say such things should not be, if the intention to put them into execution were not the object? It was, however, impossible not to believe that some such object was in view; and also impossible not to believe, that the Commissioners, by first denying relief to the able-bodied, except in workhouses, and then making workhouses irksome to them by every means in their power, intended to destroy the system of relief altogether. That the relief of the poor was not the most expensive item in the burthens of the country he had long believed; a letter which he had this morning from the township and parish of Little Bolton, in Lancashire, confirmed him in that belief. In that letter it was stated, that the annual parochial assessment for the poor was 1,450l., of which 745l. only went to their relief; the remaining 705l. being expended on the payment of overseers for collection,, and on Session fees for various kinds of litigation. It was the general taxation of the country which caused the general distress, and not the pressure of the Poor-law, with all its evils and abuses. The hon. member for Lambeth had propounded, with the gravity of an oracle, that the poor had no specific right to relief. Now, he (Mr. Cobbett) was prepared to prove, on the contrary, that every man in England and Wales standing in need of parochial relief had a clear legal right to it; that that relief, moreover, should be assessed on the real property of the kingdom; and that every woman and child of these two countries, so circumstanced, had as good a right to relief as men. He would, moreover, prove that such was the common law of the land, and the condition on which every holder of real property held his tenure. He insisted further, that to pass any law to abrogate, to nullify, or to lessen this right of the poor was a violation of the contract upon which all the real property of the kingdom was held. He was ready to maintain, that this was the law of the land. But the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said, that he did not mean to deny relief to the poor. No, he did not,—he had not the honesty, the sincerity, the manliness, to deny relief directly. But he put the power of denying it into the hands of his three red herrings stuck up in London. In the whole of this Bill he (Mr. Cobbett) saw a design to grind down the people of England, and to take away their right of relief. The people of England had this right before the Reformation. The great and small tithes had always been the first property to be assessed; and when a law was passed to relieve the small tithes from that liability, care was taken that the poor should have compensation. In the Act of Elizabeth, which was a compact between the landowners and the people, there was a clear recognition of the right of the poor to relief. But there was no stipulation that it should be made as irksome as possible; there was no stipulation that the husband should he separated from the wife, and the children from both, and that all communication between them should be cut off; there was no stipulation, that they should have badges put on them in the workhouse; they were not to be relieved at the will of negro drivers from the West Indies, or of fellows brought from the yeomanry, or from Scotland. Now, if that House did not determine that the poor should not wear badges, that their hair should not be cut off, and that they should not be clothed in san benitos, and that they should not be cut off from all communication with their friends, the whole of the landlords of this country would become heritors—ay, they must put up with that Scotch name if this Bill should pass. He sincerely trusted, however, it would not pass; and he had some reason to hope it would not pass. Thank God! the country still possessed a House of Lords; and while that tribunal existed the poor man had no reason to despair of justice. The Government paper of that morning, doubtless with the sanction of its employers, said it was absolutely necessary that the House of Lords should be remodelled; but let that Government take care how they touched that Assembly. The people of England looked to the House of Lords for the correction of those anomalies in legislation which the Reformed Parliament was every day perpetrating, and it would be a dangerous task to deprive them of the consolation its existence afforded. The great mass of the people were looked upon by many as seditious and revolutionary in their demands for Reform; but when the people called for that measure did they ever call for any of those monstrous projects of spoliation and coercion which his Majesty's present Ministers were almost daily announcing? Did they call, for instance, for the demolition and spoliation of the Church? Did they call for an enactment to rob the poor of the only compact ever made in their favour—he meant the Poor-law of Elizabeth? Did they call for a Coercion Bill for Ireland? Did they, in short, call for any one of those monstrous measures which the present Administration had brought forward? No; what the people did ask for from a Reformed Parliament the Ministers would not grant to them, while measures which they abhorred, and deprecated as much as they abhorred, were proposed and enacted. The country, from one end to the other, demanded the abolition of undeserved pensions and sinecures. Had it succeeded in obtaining that object? No.—The people required the reduction of the interest on the National Debt proportioned to the augmented value of money. Was their request acceded to?—No. They asked for the reduction of taxation, more especially for the abolition of the malt, hop, and soap, tax. Did they obtain what they asked for?—No. They required that salaries should be reduced. Was that done?—No. In no instances were the wishes of the people attended to, while Parliament was for months together occupied in legislating upon subjects in which the people had little or no interest. Did they ever pray about Dissenters being admitted to the Universities, or other unprofitable trash of the sort, with which the time of Parliament had been taken up? Did they ask for the Poor Man Robbery Bill then under discussion? God forbid! they had not done so. Did they again, pray for a remodelling of the House of Lords? Again, would he say, God forbid! That project was now promulgated by the Government papers of that morning, and with the Government ought and would rest all the odium of the business. One of three projects was proposed for the purpose. [Here there were loud cries of "Question."] If hon. Members were anxious to see him sit down, they were taking the very worst means to induce him to do so. One of three projects was proposed for the new-modelling of the House of Lords. The first was to turn out all the poor Lords—

Mr. Pryme

rose to order. He contended that even the limits of a Committee of the whole House did not enable the hon. Member to answer a paragraph in a Newspaper, or upon a discussion on a Poor-laws Bill to speak in any way respecting the House of Lords.

Mr. Cobbett

would insist upon it that he was perfectly in order. He was showing, that even the portion of the people who were accused of being revolutionary and seditious in their designs when calling for Reform did not go half so far in revolution or sedition as the members of the existing Government. He was showing, that they did not go the length of calling for a Church Spoliation Bill, or for a Coercion Bill; and more particularly that they had not prayed for the project which was that morning promulgated by the Government organ. He meant the remodelling of the House of Lords. The first project recommended for the purpose was to turn out the poor Lords; the second was to abolish the House as a Legislative Assembly altogether. Now God forbid that should ever be the case! The House of Lords, he repeated, was now the poor man's sole hope. Deprive him of that Assembly, and he was without a protector. The third project recommended by the Government for the remodelling of the House of Lords was the addition of some rich money-mongers to its present numbers. Wealth was indeed fast undermining every ancient principle of the Constitution, and so doubtless, unless checked, it would do with the House of Lords. The hon. Member concluded by moving his proviso.

Lord Althorp

said, that no man knew better than the hon. Member himself, that the House, in rejecting the Amendment, would not be expressing an opinion in favour of the practice which it sought to prohibit. As well indeed might he argue that the House, in rejecting a clause (supposing it to be proposed as part of the Bill under discussion) having for its object to prevent the hon. Member saying the same thing ten times over in the one speech, were desirous of hearing the same argument repeated, as that the House of Commons in negativing his Amendment were favourable to the practices against which it was directed. He had further only to say, that it was not intended as a general rule that a man should be separated from his wife, or children from their mother, or that paupers should have their hair shaved or be compelled to wear badges. The Commissioners, however, were to be vested with power to deviate, in case they found it expedient, in particular instances.

Mr. Baines

concurred very much in the general opinion entertained by the hon. member for Oldham, in respect to his objections to this Bill; but he deprecated the use of an expression that was calculated to excite the ill-feeling of the lower classes of society. Many of the evils just complained of by the hon. member for Oldham, were the evils of the present system. He believed that the object of the proposers of this Bill was to save the money of the rich, and to make the poor more independent than they now were. He hoped that the discussion on this measure would be conducted with good feeling, and in a spirit of fairness.

Major Beauclerk

wished to know if it was intended to give to the Commissioners a power to separate man and wife?

Lord Althorp

said, as a general principle the Commissioners would not have the power of separating man and wife, but there might occur cases where it would be necessary to make this separation.

Colonel Williams

did not think, that the Commissioners should have the power, under any circumstances, of separating man and wife, inasmuch as it was vesting theca with a power to do that which the law declared illegal.

Sir Henry Willoughby

said the hon. member for Oldham might omit those parts of his Amendment which went to deprive the guardians of all power over the paupers.

Mr. Cobbett

replied, that if the paupers did wrong there was the law to punish them as well as any other offenders.

The Committee divided on the Amendment: Ayes 17; Noes 128—Majority 111.

The Clause was agreed to.

On Clause 46, which enacts, that from and after the 31st day of June, 1835, parochial relief should cease to be given to the able-bodied men,

Mr. Poulett Scrope

recommended an alteration of the clause, excepting from its operation families of six and seven children, and fixing the time at which the Bill should come into operation, with respect to such families at different periods.

Lord Althorp

meant to propose an Amendment to enable those parishes which could easily abolish the allowance system to do so at once, and to leave it for other parishes in which the system could not be abolished at once, to bring the clause gradually into operation.

Colonel Torrens

considered this the most important, and at the same time, the most delicate, part of the Bill. The allowance system was the worst part of the maladministration of the Poor-laws, and it was at the same time the most difficult to deal with. The single man would, in the natural course of things, receive as much wages as the married man. But the practice of giving parish allowance to the married man, enabled the employer to lower the wages of both married and single men; and made it the interest of the farmer to employ the married, whose children the parish had to support, in preference to the single. If the clause passed in its present state, and no assistance were to be given to a married man with a large family, he would not be employed at all, and especially where there was surplus labour in the parish.

Sir Thomas Freemantle

approved of the clause, and especially with the Amendment which the noble Lord meant to propose. The attempt had been made, in various parishes, to get rid of the allowance system, and the greatest difficulty was, to provide for large families, which could not be maintained upon the wages of the father? The way in which he had known that difficulty to be met was this:—The children above ten years of age were considered independent labourers, and employed as such by the parish, in agricultural work of a light nature, at wages of from 2s. to 2s. 6d. a week. But he feared that, if all the children under sixteen years of age, were made to depend altogether on the labour of the father, in many parishes the vestries would be reluctant to give them employment, even where that could easily be done.

Mr. Robinson

admitted, that the present system of allowing wages out of the rates to agricultural labourers, was highly objectionable, but he was bound to look to the effect of the alteration of this part of the present system, by the clause now before the House, and he very much feared that the effect of the alteration would be, to create an increase of pauperism, because, if the poor were not able to get permanent employment, the Commissioners would have no power, should relief be applied for, but to send these labourers to the workhouse. If such were the effect of this clause, could the noble Lord contemplate what would be the number of workhouses that would be necessary to contain all these pauper labourers?

Mr. Grote

said, that those who opposed this clause, overlooked the supplemental clauses which provided for the suggested difficulties. He did not think, that the evils contemplated by the opposers of the clause, would arise.

Lord Althorp

knew, from the labourers he himself employed, though he did not give them higher wages than other farmers, that men who were industrious were able to support large families. He believed that if men were paid by the job instead of by the day, they would be able to support large families. With respect to the clause, he thought, that every provision was made by it that could be made, and if they did not carry the clause into effect, it would be useless to try to amend the Poor-laws.

Mr. Mark Philips

thought that some provision ought to be made to relieve the hand-loom weavers from the operation of this clause, their case being different from that general practice which the clause sought to guard against. In the parish where he resided, there were not less than 200 persons of this description, who received small sums in aid of their wages, and who would starve or go to the workhouse, if that were wholly withdrawn.

Mr. Hardy

hoped, that some provision would be made to exempt the persons employed in the hardware trade, from the operation of the clause. It was customary when that trade was slack, for the employer, instead of giving his men 14s. for a week's labour, to give 7s. for three days' labour; and as partial employment would exclude a man from parish assistance, great destitution and misery would result.

Mr. Blamire

suggested, that it would be expedient to give to the overseers of parishes, where there were no guardians, the discretionary power to relieve applicants on his own responsibility, and subject to the consent of the Commissioners.

Lord Althorp

said, the power was given to overseers equally with guardians by the proviso at the end of the clause. In the cases supposed, of work being slack, they seldom occurred so rapidly as not to allow of an application to the Commissioners.

Mr. Hodges objected to the clause in toto.

It being three o'clock, the House resumed and adjourned.

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