HC Deb 09 February 1836 vol 31 cc226-33
Sir Richard Musgrave

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill for the Relief of the Poor of Ireland in certain cases. A measure similar to that which he meant now to propose was brought under the consideration of the House last Session. He understood that there was no objection to it on the part of Government. Allusion was made in the Speech from the Throne to the state of the Irish Poor, and he believed that hon. Members had every possible desire to ameliorate their condition. The Commissioners for inquiring into the state of the Irish Poor had made a Report, in which it was stated that numbers perished daily in Ireland from destitution and want. Such being the case, he did not mean, not with standing the intimation given by Government upon the subject, to give up his intention of proposing some measure to the House. The Bill which he would ask leave to bring in was drawn up by a gentleman of great legal knowledge and experience. There could be no harm in introducing this Bill to the notice of the House, whatever might be the intentions of Ministers. When he introduced this subject last Session, Gentlemen were not generally so well acquainted with it as they were at present. The Report of the Irish Poor Commissioners was now before the House, and no document that was ever laid upon their table showed a greater amount of suffering, misery, and destitution. He would not detain, the House by reading any extracts from it. The medical part of the Report was, perhaps, the most important, because medical men had the best opportunities of witnessing, in the discharge of their professional duties, (he extent and nature of the distresses and sufferings of the poor. The seenes they described were most melancholy and appalling. Indeed the wretched state of the poor could not be unknown to any person residing in Ireland. He himself lived in an atmosphere of misery, and being compelled to witness it daily, he was determined to pursue the subject to see whether any and what relief could be procured from Parliament. Suppose the whole population of Middlesex, of Kent, and Sussex were at one instant to be deprived of parochial relief, and turned out upon the highways to die, by hundreds, of starvation, that House would not hesitate a moment to adopt, not merely such a measure as he meant now to propose, but a much more effectual one. The poor of Ireland should not merely receive present relief, but means should be taken to secure future employment for able-bodied labourers. There were very ample means of affording employment there, by instituting a steady and vigorous course of improvement. The Report of the English Poor-law Commissioners was highly honourable to their judgment and industry, and the measure founded on it no less honorable to Ministers, but doubts were entertained whether a similar system of Poor-laws to that now acted upon in England could be beneficially extended to Ireland. A Poor-law here was of long standing; its operation, whether for good or evil, was well known; but it would not be so in Ireland. No person would propose for that country a system similar in ail respects to that of England. The establishment of workhouses in Ireland would not be a benefit to that country, for great numbers of the Irish poor were drawn over here from the fear of absolute starvation. Some means should also be devised to give employment to able-bodied workmen. It appeared from the evidence on the state of the poor, that these persons were actually driven from home by starvation. If these distressed persons were offered admittance into a workhouse, they would accept this or any other mode of obtaining food. Before the experiment of workhouses was tried in Ireland, let the mode of carrying on public works be im- proved, and let other means be adopted in order to extend employment for the able-bodied. Last Session he ventured to introduce a Bill, by which public works would be extended, and this Session he had given notice for renewing that measure. The best practical engineers asserted that ample employment might be afforded by a proper extension of such works. Let something also be done to improve the distribution of landed property of Ireland. It was a fact that the occupiers of the soil, those who were to be considered as the people of Ireland, were prevented by the nature of their tenures from effecting permanent improvements. And this, after all, was the greatest evil of Ireland. In this respect Ireland differed from every country where the people were in a state of comfort and happiness. By the Bill before the House it was intended to provide relief for the helpless unable to work—and, on extraordinary occasions, for other classes also, by levying a rate in aid of subscriptions on such occasions. By the first Clause, the duty of executing the act was primarily to devolve on a Committee, who would have power, at discretion, to afford relief. This Committee was to consist of rate-payers, possessing a certain qualification described in the Bill. It had been thought necessary to attach a qualification, because, if all rate-payers were allowed to vote, many of the poorest class would have to decide on cases of their own relations who applied for relief. Seven Committee-men were required to constitute a Committee. At their first meeting, the Committee would have to divide the parish into sections, and was to appoint a sub-committee of management, assigning to each sub-committee-man the superintendence of one or more sections. In the appointment of the sub-committee a continued rotation was to be observed. One of the sub-committee was to be guardian, and another to be deputy-guardian of the poor, filling the office of Chairman at each meeting of the subcommittee. As he had mentioned, on a former occasion, the appointment of a superintendent for each section of a parish was found to answer admirably at Glasgow, as described by Dr. Chalmers in his evidence. This regulation was also successfully adopted in Ireland during the prevalence of the cholera. The subcommittee would have to draw up a list of the helpless poor, confining the list under that denomination, to aged persons above sixty, orphans under fourteen, the maimed, sick, blind, deaf, and dumb, lunatics and idiots. And in this roll were to be mentioned the age, birth-place, and other particulars relating to each person named therein, together with the' amount of allowance required in each case. This statement and the roll of the poor was to be laid before the General Committee for their decision. The statement of the determination of the General Committee would then go before the Grand Jury of the county, by whom it might be altered on appeal. When a valuation had taken place, every party having paid rates, directly or indirectly, might, out of the rent next payable by him, make a deduction not exceeding three-fourths of the poundage on the annual rate thus payable as shall have been used for ascertaining the rates. If the Treasurer of the county stated in his warrant that a poundage of 1s. was to be levied, asrates, on the annual value—the occupier paying 1s. per pound, might deduct from his landlord's rent 9d. per pound of rent. This Clause was so drawn as to make every person having an interest in the land pay according to the amount of that interest. On occasions of extraordinary distress, such as prevailed last year in Mayo, he proposed to levy a rate equal to the amount of private subscriptions raised for the relief of the able-bodied. By another Clause power was also given to the General Committee to assistmendicity institutions, by levying rates on the parish. The Bill also proposed to give the Lord-lieutenant authority to unite parishes, on memorials being presented to him for that purpose. He had thus briefly explained to the House the principal Clauses of the Bill. Many Members might wish to proceed further, and to extend relief to other classes, by a compulsory law. He begged hon. Members to consider that the investigation which must take place under this Bill would prove beneficial not only to the helpless poor, but also to the other distressed persons. The hon. Member concluded by moving, that leave be given to bring in "a Bill to authorise the Relief of the Poor of Ireland in certain cases."

Mr. Smith O'Brien

having paid a great deal of attention to the subject, was anxious to say a few words on that occasion. He had always felt that it was the duty of Government to take up this ques- tion, in order that it should be carried out to a satisfactory result; but from the nature of it he thought they should be ready to receive and consider suggestions with reference to it from all quarters. He was not prepared to offer anything that was probably new, but as be had prepared a Bill on the subject as well as his hon. Friend, he trusted the House would allow him to introduce it on a future occasion that it might be printed. He was gratified to hear the announcement in the King's Speech that his Majesty's Ministers had taken up the subject, and he trusted that they would prepare a measure that would afford adequate relief to the country.

Mr. Shaw

said, that he felt all the importance and difficulty of the subject. He thought, however, as the Government had referred to it in the King's Speech, they should be prepared to state generally the course they meant to pursue. He did not mean that they should prematurely commit themselves to any specific plan, or go into any details; but they surely might inform the House whether they intended to introduce any measure at all during the present Session, and if so, upon what principle? For his own part, he did not desire to precipitate their decision upon a question involving the most serious consequences to Ireland. He could not see his way to the application of any system of Poor-laws to the peculiar condition and circumstances of that country, but he thought, as the Government had thrown upon themselves the great responsibility of dealing with the question, that individual Members should leave it in their. hands.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

felt that the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman was most extraordinary. It was the intention of his Majesty's Ministers to bring forward a measure on the subject, as they had already stated as strongly as possible, and in the most authoritative manner. Their views had been expressed as fully as they could be at present; but they could not enter into details. Indeed it would require more ingenuity than the right hon. Gentleman possessed to say how the Government could explain the nature of a measure to be founded on the Report of the Commissioners of Poor-laws, which Report had not yet been, prepared.

Mr. Young

(Cavan) hoped it was distinctly understood on all hands, that when the proposed bills were laid on the Table, neither the hon. Baronet nor the Member for Ennis, would attempt to press them on through any further stages, until such times as the Government measure was also laid before the House, and opportunity given for considering all the proposals on this important subject together. It certainly was full time for the Legislature to take the subject in hand, and, if possible, alleviate the sufferings which prevailed to such a dreadful extent in Ireland; but this step must be taken guardedly, and strict limits adopted, lest that which was intended for relief should only aggravate the evil.

Mr. O'Connell

thought that his Majesty's Ministers had said all that could be required of them at present. He was satisfied that the period had at length come when some system of Poor-laws must be introduced into Ireland. There had, for some time, been a gradual and steady amelioration in the condition of the farmers of the agricultural districts of the West and South of Ireland; and this improvement had, to some extent, descended to the labouring classes. He therefore thought that it was the proper time to bring forward some measures. The system now beginning to be acted upon in this country worked well, and some plan of the kind might be devised to work well in Ireland; but the utmost care must be exercised that the management of it was such that local prejudices and abuses could be efficiently checked. A measure to afford relief to the destitute ought probably to be accompanied with some means to prevent the absorption of the bulk of the labouring part of the population into the pauper class. He would also make another suggestion, namely, that the Poor-law Commissioners should be allowed to allocate lands to labourers with families who were, of course, not so well prepared to emigrate. At the commencement some assistance must be afforded. By these means, however, he felt that they might so regulate the population of the country with reference to the employment of labour, that they need not consider it a frightful prospect to pass a measure for affording relief to the destitute poor of Ireland. He looked forward with anxious and sanguine hopes to the measures, for one would not be sufficient, likely to be introduced by the Government, and he had no doubt that every care would be taken to prevent any interference with wages, and also that such an extent of relief should not be given that the stimulus to exertion should be lessened.

Mr. Scarlett

was surprised that his Majesty's Ministers were not prepared to state their opinions on the subject, when they had announced in the King's Speech that they intended to bring forward some measure. They ought not to have said anything on the subject until they were prepared to state what measures they meant to propose; did they mean to encourage or assist emigration? Was assistance to be afforded to remove a portion of unemployed labour from one district where there was not sufficient employment for it, to one where there was an adequate demand? A surplus quantity of labour in any spot would, of course, prevent any great improvement. He therefore would recommend the encouragement of the emigration of able-bodied labourers; but, as it was, the prospect of such an essential change as the introduction of Poor-laws into Ireland, without their nature being explained, was calculated to produce great excitement in that country. Great caution must be used in a country like Ireland, where every thing was so essentially different from what obtained in this country. He could not help feeling that the object in view in introducing such a measure was to injure the landlords; this might not be the case; but still he was not satisfied that it was not. He was ready to support any measure for the relief of the distress of the Irish poor; but he doubted whether this could be done advantageously by means of a system of Poor-laws, when he considered the anomalous state of the country.

Mr. French, although strongly opposed both to the principle and detail of this measure, did not mean to oppose the introduction of the Bill by his hon. Friend the Member for Waterford, understanding his object to be confined to the laying his views on this important subject before the House, and that this Bill would not be proceeded with further until the measure, whatever it might be, of his Majesty's Ministers, which had been alluded to in the King's Speech, should have been brought forward. He was, he acknowledged, hostile to the introduction of a system of compulsory relief into Ireland, believing it would prove prejudicial to the interests of all classes, from the highest to the lowest. They had already in that country adopted that portion of the English Poor-laws system, which appeared to them beneficial. Fever hospitals, infirmaries, lunatic asylums, dispensaries, schools, &c, had been established at the public expense, and was supported out of the county votes. Several voluntary associations, such as the mendicity, had been entered into; and every thing further which ought, on dispassionate inquiry, be deemed likely to ameliorate the condition of the working classes, he was confident the landed proprietors would willingly subject themselves to: he felt, however, that this was a subject of too much importance to be hastily legislated on—too complicated in all its relations to be understood by an individual Member; a false step here could not be recalled—its fatal effects would not be confined to the present, but would extend to the future: any measure introduced on a subject such as this, one which must exercise a powerful and permanent influence on the welfare of the country for good or for evil, ought not to be introduced save on the responsibility of the government of the country—a measure founded on the Report of the Poor-law Commissioners, the advantages of which would be apparent, neither embracing doubtful expedients, or experimental trials; after its introduction a sufficient time should be afforded for its consideration —let it be referred to a Committee of County Members without reference to their political views—let it be shown to them how the absence of machinery to carry its provisions into effect could be provided for; it was not, and he trusted it would not, be made a party question. The only object of all parties ought to be, should it be deemed advisable to legislate on this subject, to produce a measure, if possible, beneficial to a class hitherto much neglected, but certainly the most important in the community—the peasantry of Ireland.

Motion agreed to.