HC Deb 13 June 1834 vol 24 cc427-33

The Order of the Day for the House to resolve itself into Committee on the Poor-laws' Amendment Bill was read.

On the Motion that the Speaker leave the Chair.

Mr. Cobbett

objected to the principle of passing a Bill founded on voluminous reports of Commissioners, the one-twentieth part of which not one Member in 100 had read. Was this the way in which the business was to be done in a Reformed Parliament? He thought, that in- stead of being called upon to pass this bill in a hurry, and without reading the evidence on which it rested, they ought to have at least 365 days to read that evidence; at all events, they ought to have before them an account of the expenses of these Commissioners; he would therefore move as an Amendment to the Motion for the Speaker's leaving the Chair, that there be laid before the House an account of all salaries, allowances, printing expenses, expenses of messengers, and expenses of every description occasioned by the Poor-law Commission; also a statement whether any of the Commissioners hold other Commissions, or fill any offices for which they receive pay out of the public purse, specifying what Commission or what office, and also specifying the sum or sums so received, and stating further, whether the secretary to the Commissioners holds any other public post of emolument, and what post, and the amount of such emoluments. Would the noble Lord object to this Motion? [Lord Althorp: No!] Then he should say nothing further.

Motion agreed to.

The House went into the Committee.

The Question was a proviso proposed (by the Government) to be added to the 46th Clause: to the effect, "that in case at any time or times after the said 1st day of June, 1835, the overseers or guardians of any parish or union shall deem it advisable that relief should be given to any able-bodied person, wholly or partially in the employment of any person or persons, it shall be lawful for such overseers or guardians to make a statement and to report to the said Commissioners the special circumstances which in their judgment render such relief expedient.

Mr. Hardy

had proposed an Amendment on Thursday, to enable overseers or guardians to grant relief in cases of emergency, without making beforehand a statement of the circumstances to the Commissioners. It would be unjust and cruel to deprive the poor of such a resource in case of emergency, and he therefore should press his Amendment.

Lord Althorp

said, that if such a power were given to the overseers without application to the general Board, it would defeat the whole object of the Bill. He had before admitted, that in cases of individual emergency there should be a power to grant relief by the overseer, but he considered that was already sufficiently provided for by the 45th Clause.

Sir George Phillips

was glad that the noble Lord dissented from the Amendment. Such an Amendment would bring the vicious administration of the agricultural districts into the towns. The Bill would be inoperative if the necessary control which this and other Clauses gave to the Central Board were withdrawn.

Mr. Pease

thought the Amendment was called for. It was a mistake to suppose that there was no making up of wages by the poor-rates in manufacturing districts.

Mr. Hardy

withdrew the Amendment.

On the Question that the proviso be added to the Clause,

Mr. Cobbett

remarked, that this Clause would place the labouring classes in a worse condition than they were at present. He trusted, that he should never see the system that was so much lauded, and so often referred to in the north of England, introduced into the south. With regard to the Clause itself, he would just say this—that they had now under their control three countries; one of them had meat and bread and knives and forks, the other had oatmeal and brose and horn spoons, and the third had only potatoes and paws. In the first country he had mentioned, a system of Poor-laws had been in existence for 240 years—in the second they had an inefficient system of Poor-laws—and in the third there were no Poor-laws at all, and the object of this Bill was, to reduce the first country to the condition of the last.

The Clause (46th) as amended, was agreed to.

On Clause 48, which provides, that in future no relief should be given except by the guardians of the poor or select vestry, and as amended taking away the power of Justices of the Peace to order, or overseers to afford relief, except in cases of urgent necessity, being put by the Chairman,

Lord Althorp

admitted, that the effect of this clause would take away the power of Magistrates to order relief out of the workhouse in places where workhouses existed, or in united parishes in which there were guardians of the poor. But, on the other hand, where there were no workhouses and no select vestries, the power was reserved to the Magistrates to order relief precisely as they now possessed that power.

Mr. Poulett Scrope

contended, that the security of the pauper population for relief depended upon the reservation of the power to Justices of the Peace to order it. In this opinion he was supported by the provisions of every enactment relating to the relief of the poor which had passed during the last 300 years, commencing in the year 1536, and such powers were embodied in the statutes, 27th Henry 8th; 5th, 14th, and 23rd Elizabeth; 3rd and 4th William and Mary, and in every Statute down to the Act of 1796. He must, therefore, ask the House to pause before it consented to do away with the astringent and compulsory powers to order relief, and in their stead erect merely a voluntary and discretionary power in other individuals. He was borne out in this feeling by the answers which had been given to the queries generally circulated by the Poor-law Commissioners themselves. He must advert to one of the queries, which was in these terms—"What do you think would be the immediate and ultimate effect of making the decisions of the Select Vestry or the guardians of the poor final on questions of relief?" He begged the House to bear in mind the answer to that query, from at least two-thirds of those to whom it had been put, and who included not only Magistrates, but vestrymen, guardians of the poor, clergymen, and overseers. The replies had been—"Great injustice to the poor; the effect would be starvation, and the result of this change would be cruel tyranny and oppressive injustice upon the pauper population of this country." He was still further assisted in his opposition to this change by the opinions of no less than two of the sub-commissioners, Mr. M'Clean and Captain Chapman. The House ought not to forget, that, by the adoption of the last clause, they had already gone very far in trenching upon the vested rights of relief—rights which had accumulated during the last forty years, for it should be remembered, that the Statute of 1796 declared, that under all circumstances, the pauper was entitled to relief at his own home. He, on the whole, contended, that the power of a bench of justices, comprising three, four, or five, should still have the power reserved to them under preceding Statutes. He should, therefore, move an Amendment to the effect "of reserving a power to two Justices at petty sessions, after complaint upon the oath of the pauper, and after the summons and hearing of the overseer, to order relief."

Lord Althorp

conceived, that the Amendment deserved consideration. It had certainly occurred to the Government, on framing this Bill, that in order to bring the Poor-laws into that state in which they ought to be, it would be right to take away the power now contended for, under the supposition, that in practice it had led to many evils that had been complained of. He denied, that the clause took away the positive right of the pauper to relief, for which the hon. Member had contended, and still further he denied that such positive right existed under the present laws, for, on the contrary, the ordering relief was discretionary in the breast of any individual Magistrate. As to what had been said with respect to the severity likely to prevail on the vestries and the guardians of the poor, he must observe, that he did not think it at all probable they would prove as hard-hearted as was imputed to them. He considered, too, that the discretion given to these bodies would be at the least as well executed as that previously granted to Magistrates. At the same time, considering that the opinion of the House was in favour of the Bill as it stood, he should rather abide by its decision, than urge strongly his own views.

Sir Thomas Freemantle

thought it dangerous to oust the old Magistrates from their jurisdiction, and to transfer their powers to bodies which might, like the Select Vestries, work well at first, but afterwards conduct the business ill and negligently.

Mr. Slaney

thought it would be advisable to leave some mitigated power to the Magistrates.

Sir John Wrottesley

was opposed to the Amendment, and ready to rely on private charity for meeting all cases of emergency.

Mr. Cobbett

said, the clause would deprive the Magistrates throughout the country of all their authority, and convert them into mere beggar-whippers, objects of contempt among those over whom they had hitherto exercised a very wholesome authority.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

expressed his determination to support the Amendment, not with the view of maintaining the station and authority of the Magistrates, whom the hon. member for Oldham on the present occasion, no doubt most sincerely, applauded; but in order to preserve and cherish that community of feeling between the Magistrates and the lower classes of society which was so essential to the satisfactory administration of the Poor-laws.

Lord Althorp

had not heard anything to convince him of the propriety of the Amendment which had been proposed. He did not think the evils which some hon. Gentlemen seemed to deprecate, were likely to occur. The Board of Guardians was so constituted, that it would, in his opinion, lead to a most satisfactory and well-regulated provision for the deserving industrious poor; and as to the interference of the Magistrates, although in some cases it might have been advantageous, it was in no way generally essential, or even advisable in the administration of the Poor-laws.

Mr. Cobbett

maintained, that the clause would create a parcel of paid overseers, who would be the curse of the country. Paid overseers had produced all the riots and burnings in Hampshire ["No, no."] and so great was the aversion they had excited, that twenty of them had been carted by the people out of their parishes. ["No, no."] What hon. Member was there who dared to contradict him? [laughter.]

Mr. Halcomb

begged distinctly to contradict the hon. Member. He had himself been present at the trials in Hampshire, and the hon. Member was quite wrong in his assertions.

Mr. Goring

also denied the correctness of the hon. Member's allegations. If that hon. Member would look to his own writings he would find the true cause of the burnings and riots to which he had referred. Had that hon. Member forgotten the case of Goodman, and the confession made by that unfortunate individual previous to his ascending the scaffold, that the writings and speeches of the hon. member for Oldham had induced him to commit those crimes of incendiarism for which he was about to suffer?

Mr. Cobbett

denied having ever uttered the sentiments which the paper, purporting to be the confession of Goodman ascribed to him; and stated that 103 respectable individuals from Battle were ready to confirm his declaration. In fact, it had been proved at the trial that Goodman had set fire to several stacks from private malice, and had been stimulated by the parson and others to make the fabricated confession with the view of furnishing the merciful and gracious Whig Government with some pretext for bringing him (Mr. Cobbett) to trial. The whole was a base conspiracy; and even now he was ready to prove, that several individuals in Battle had actually received public money for carrying it on. The charge was as false as the hon. Member's assertions would be if he did not believe them to be true. The life of the individual, too, had actually been spared, because he had put his hand to the fabricated confession; while another unfortunate man had been taken from the same gaol, and, although not half so guilty, had suffered the extreme penalty of the law.

Mr. Goring

had seen the original confession, and to show that there had been no fabrication in the document, the first name appended to it as a witness was that of the sheriff of the place.

The Committee divided on the Amendment: Ayes 25; Noes 127—Majority 102.

The Clause agreed to.

List of the AYES.
Astley, Sir J. Knatchbull, Sir E.
Attwood, T. O'Connell, M.
Baines, E. Scholefield, J.
Bennett, J. Slaney, R. A.
Blackstone, W. S. Thicknesse, R.
Butler, Colonel Tower, C. T.
Cobbett, W. Tyrrell, Sir J.
Durham, Sir P. Vyvyan, Sir R.
Finn, W. F. Williams, Colonel
Fremantle, Sir T. Willoughby, Sir H.
Godson, R. Wood, Colonel
Hanmer, Sir J. TELLERS.
Hodges, T. L. Scrope, P.
Jacob, E.

The Clauses to the 59th inclusive were agreed to, except the 55th and 57th which were postponed.

The House resumed. The Committee to sit again.