§ Mr. Roebuck
presented a Petition from Colonel William Napier, complaining of cruelty on the part of the parish officers of Freshford to the paupers of that parish. The hon. Member read the petition, and detailed several cases of great wretchedness and destitution, two of which had ended in death, arising out of inadequate allowances to paupers, in that district. The Poor-law Amendment Bill had been passed with a view to the relief of the poor, and in order to raise them from a state of distress and degradation. The Bill originally contained a clause for the prosecution by the Commissioners of persons who should ill-treat or act with cruelty towards paupers, but that wholesome and necessary power of prosecution was taken away in the Upper House of Parliament. See the situation of the poor, as the law now stood; the persons injured were poor and destitute, and had no redress against their oppressors, unless their case happened to be taken up by some benevolent private individual. Cases of cruelty and oppression ought not to be left to the chance or charity of individuals to punish,—it ought to be the business of a public prosecutor to take them up. It was mainly with a view to enforce the necessity of establishing this principle, that he brought the present case before 597 the House. He thought that the case set forth in the petition, was one in which the House should direct the Attorney-General to prosecute. He appealed to Gentlemen's sense of justice and humanity, and asked them whether the parties who had been the cause of so much human misery and suffering, should be permitted to escape with impunity? The hon. Member proceeded to read, from the petition of Colonel Napier, several cases of extreme wretchedness and suffering among the paupers of Freshford. The workhouse consisted of a miserable collection of hovels, in which the paupers were kept without fire or sufficient clothes, or covering, in an inclement season of the year. The unhappy inmates complained of cold and hunger, and were surrounded with filth. Men and women between seventy and eighty had been reduced from an allowance of 2s. to 1s. 6d. a-week. Some had beds, but no bedclothes; and the sick were unprovided with medicine or attendance. A family, consisting of a man and his wife, and several children, were allowed so small a sum, that they must have perished from hunger, but for the aid of private charity. The hon. Member was proceeding to quote other cases of extreme privation, with a view to show the culpable conduct of the Overseers and Churchwardens of the parish, when
Mr. Secretary Goulburn
said, that if the hon. Member for Bath would allow of the interruption, he (Mr. Goulburn) thought be could state what might satisfy the hon. Gentleman, and save the time of the House. The transaction in question, had only recently come under his cognizance, but, he had no hesitation in saying that, from what he had learned of the case, he should feel it his duty to see that it underwent a judicial investigation. The hon. Member would, therefore, see, he hoped, that the effect of entering upon the details of the transaction, previous to that investigation, must be to interfere with the proper administration of justice.
§ Mr. Roebuck.
Did the right hon. Gentleman mean to say that, the Poor-law Commissioners having dismissed two individuals as guilty of misconduct, he would at once direct a prosecution to be instituted against the Overseers of the parish of Freshford? Their conduct was a disgrace to a civilized country.
Mr. Secretary Goulburn
replied, that he intended to take those measures which 598 he thought necessary, in order to meet the justice of the case. The course he proposed to adopt was this—to call upon the parish, for the sake of its own character, to prosecute the individuals whose conduct had been complained of, for he could not but think, that if the parish authorities had excercised a proper degree of vigilance over the management of the workhouse, such things could not have taken place. However, if the parish proved unwilling or unable to take up the case in a proper manner, he should direct a prosecution to be instituted at the expense of the Crown, though not through the medium of the Attorney-General.
§ Mr. Roebuck
did not think it necessary, after the observations of the right hon. Secretary, to say more on the subject.
§ Major Beauclerk
congratulated the House on the circumstance of one of the strongest supporters of the Poor-laws' Amendment Bill, having at length found out that the measure could not work. ["No," from Mr. Roebuck.] He thought the hon. Gentleman admitted the Bill to be a complete failure ["No"]; if the hon. Member did not go so far, he (Major Beauclerk) had no wish to misrepresent his sentiments. It had been said, and he thought, not without justice, that the Bill could never be enforced. In the county (Surrey) he had the honour to represent, the measure was almost inoperative, and the same remark might be applied to other counties. Where the Bill had been enforced, it had produced a great deal of bad feeling among the lower classes. Many parts of the measure he admitted to be good, but there were others most objectionable in their nature: he referred particularly to the fact of the poor being put entirely in the hands of Commissioners residing in London, and he hoped the present Government would take the subject into its consideration, with a view to the introduction of improvements in the law.
said, the Gentlemen who advocated this Bill last Session, would recollect he had warned them against the effects of the measure, and this petition justified the alarm which he and other Members had expressed respecting the consequences to be expected. ["No."] Hon. Members said no, but he said yes; and he thought that such atrocities as had been mentioned, ought to call forth the sympathies of every Englishman. He 599 was surprised that any Gentleman who had heard the horrid details brought forward by the hon. Member for Bath, should hesitate in his opinion as to the character of the Bill which permitted their existence. He had foreseen and foretold the likelihood of such evils and cases of extreme hardship as the petition described—evils for which the Bill provided no remedy, except what might be afforded by the Central Board. The measure proceeded on the principle of taking all the power out of the hands of the Magistrates, cutting off their interposition; and, in the event of cases of hardship, leaving only an appeal to the Central Board. With a view to prevent the evils that must arise, and had arisen, from this system, he last year ventured to propose that guardians of the poor should be appointed in every county, with whose assistance the Magistrates should take cognizance of gross cases of cruelty and negligence. This proposition, however, was not listened to by the House, which seemed to be infatuated in favour of this measure. His clauses were rejected in the Committee—in fact, they had been put down by general clamour. The moment the Magistrate's name was mentioned, their interference was scouted, the clauses were hardly listened to, and the Bill passed almost without any modification. Such modifications as were introduced, had been effected with very great difficulty. He was glad that the hon. Member for Bath had brought the matter under the consideration of the House. It would be necessary to revise the Poor-law Amendment Act, for the authority of the Central Board was of a temporary nature, that body having been appointed only for five years. If the operation of the Bill were to be extended, some alteration would be required in the number of Assistant Commissioners. At present the law was only partially brought into operation; in many parts of the country it was little known; but when it should be generally acted on, if it ever was, some mode must be devised for procuring immediate attention to the evils and severities to which the poor would be exposed from the grinding pressure of Overseers and others. It would be absolutely necessary to devise some mode of appeal other than that at present allowed to the Central Board.
Mr. Secretary Goulburn
wished to set the hon. and gallant Member right with 600 respect to a fact. He did not mean to offer any opinion upon the Poor-law Amendment Act, or upon the matter before the House; nor did he wish to prolong the discussion, but he wished to state, that the cruelties complained of had occurred in the workhouse of a parish for which the Commissioners had issued no rules or regulations. That parish was in the state in which it would have been if no Poor-law Amendment Act had passed. The power of interference in that parish was yet in the Magistrates. He thought it only due to the Commissioners under the Poor-laws' Amendment Act to state that the unfortunate occurrences detailed in the petition could not be attributed to them.
had made no charge against the Commissioners, but had simply complained of the alteration in the old law effected by the act of last year. The statement in the petition was, that the small pittance allowed to the paupers had been reduced.
§ Mr. Roebuck
observed, that the petition complained of gross misconduct on the part of the overseers, who had been for three years in office.
had heard the petition read, and believed it to detail various instances in which poor persons receiving pecuniary allowance had had that allowance reduced from 3s. and 2s. to 1s. 6d. per week. Now, previous to the passing of the Poor-laws' Amendment Act two Magistrates had the power to order such pecuniary relief to paupers as they considered necessary; but by that Act the right of interference was entirely taken away from the Magistrates.
§ Mr. Poulett Scrope,
to prevent any misrepresentation of the case of the parish of Freshford going forth to the public, was anxious that it should be distinctly understood, that all the irregularities complained of in the petition before the House were of more than three years standing. It was, therefore, evident that the Commissioners appointed last year were not responsible for them; but other parties were responsible besides the overseer, and those parties were the Magistrates. The law, as it existed before the passing of the Act of last year, and as it now existed, gave the neighbouring Magistrates sufficient power to put an end to the abuses which had prevailed in the parish of Freshford. It was perfectly true that the Poor-laws' Amendment Act took from the 601 Magistrates the power of ordering relief to paupers in parishes which had workhouses; but sufficient power was given to Magistrates to remedy abuses by another and very valuable Act. which had not been repealed by the Bill of last Session—he meant the 30th George III., c. 49, passed for the purpose of extending the powers granted by the 22nd George III. That Act gave the right to a single Magistrate to visit and inspect the workhouses in his district, and, in the event of discovering any irregularity in the management of the workhouses, or of ascertaining that sufficient relief was not allowed to the paupers, that they were in want of proper clothing, or exposed to diseases of an infectious nature, he was empowered, in conjunction with another Magistrate, to make an order for the remedy of all such abuses. It was, therefore, clear that the Magistrates in the neighbourhood of Freshford had the power, and ought, in the discharge of their duty, to have visited the workhouse in which the irregularities complained of had so long existed, and to have summarily put a stop to those irregularities. They might, also, have certified the state of the workhouse to the Magistrates at quarter sessions, and have obtained from them an order for the proper regulation of the place; therefore, if legal proceedings were instituted, they ought not to be directed solely against the overseers of the parish, but, also, against the Magistrates for having forgotten or wilfully neglected their duty. He really thought, that to institute a prosecution against the overseers, through the medium of the Home Secretary or the Attorney-General, was a very round-about mode of proceeding. There ought to exist some more summary process. Every pauper, to whom relief might be refused, should be allowed to apply to some neighbouring tribunal for redress. With this view, when the Poor-laws' Amendment Bill was under discussion, he had made a proposition—to which the House did not think proper to assent—to permit any individual to institute proceedings, at quarter sessions, against overseers for neglect of duty towards paupers; and to empower the Magistrates to order the expenses of those proceedings to be paid by the parish in which the existence of abuse should be proved. If such had been the law, the abuses now complained of would have been remedied long since.
§ Mr. Benett
expressed a doubt whether the poor-house mentioned in the petition was a parish workhouse.
§ Mr. Roebuck
considered, that the houses to which the poor were sent by the parish officers must be the parish poor-house. At all events, they were so considered, both by the assistant Commissioners and the Commissioners themselves. He commended the conduct of the Commissioners with respect to the case of the Freshford paupers, and said that they rendered the most prompt assistance as soon as the facts were communicated to them. With regard to the Poor-law Amendment Bill, many persons, both in and out of the House, had done much mischief by misleading the people, who neither read nor understood the law, as to the nature of its provisions. The hon. Member for Oldham had been most active in setting his constituents against the law. He and others had chosen to say, that the Bill had taken away all power from the Magistrates. The Bill did no such thing. The power remained to the Magistrates until the rules of the Commissioners should be promulgated. Those rules had not been promulgated, and, therefore, if the law were not carried into effect, the Magistrates had to blame themselves, and not the law. The law would place the poor in that position in which they ought to stand; and if the power to prosecute were given to the Commissioners, the law would be complete, and they would no longer have to complain of the cruelty of parish officers, or of the idleness of unpaid Magistrates.
§ Petition to lie on the Table.