HC Deb 16 February 1837 vol 36 cc598-607
Mr. Barlow Hoy

rose, in pursuance of the notice he had given, to call the attention of the House to the number of petitions presented from various parts of the country with respect to benefit societies. He was of opinion that it would be of great advantage that the laws by which they were governed were embodied in an Act, and that this Act should be so framed that, while it imposed checks sufficient to prevent abuse, it did not unnecessarily restrain them, or deprive them of the power of managing their property. He had endeavoured in the last Session to obtain a Committee to inquire into the nature of these societies generally, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, requested a postponement of his motion, on the ground of the important business which remained to be done at the end of the Session, but did not oppose the motion on any other grounds. He would now ask what more important business could the House have before it than this, which regarded the interest of 12,000 or 16,000, societies, the number of members of which was about two millions?— and it might be fairly calculated that the interests of at least 3,000,000 of individuals were involved directly in the welfare of those societies. The members of them wished to set aside, in the days of their youth and strength, a portion of their earnings which would assist them in old age and sickness, and thus be enabled to stand aloof from the assistance of poor-laws, charitable institutions, or of alms. He considered, therefore, that they were worthy of encouragement, and instead of being controlled and restrained by one barrister, that they should be allowed to frame their own rules, which should be sufficient for their government when signed by the magistrates at quarter sessions, or by a barrister of four or five years' standing. The extension of those bodies would tend to remove a heavy burthen from the poor-rates; for the Members wished to keep themselves independent of the workhouse, to keep aloof from the relief provided by the Poor-laws, and instead of being restrained or embarrassed in their operation by the laws, they ought to be encouraged by those laws; and, in his opinion, the more they were left to themselves in the management of their property, it would be so much the better. He thought that they ought to be allowed to frame their own laws, and when those laws received the sanction of the magistrates at quarter sessions, such laws, so sanctioned, would, he was certain, be found well adapted to promote the good government of those societies and to secure the objects which the members had in view. The mode at present in operation tended to fetter their operation, and to restrain their increase; and the variety of laws which were now in force, and which distracted and bewildered simple men, by their apparently contradictory character, had in many instances, prevented the formation of benefit societies. If, then, those who had forwarded petitions to that House were right, and if their complaints were well founded, the House ought to alter the law, and to substitute some easy method which would be understood, without difficulty, by all men. Now, the truth of the allegations contained in the petitions could only be ascertained after full and fair inquiry, and he therefore hoped that a Committee would be granted, upon the report of which a comprehensive measure could be framed for the regulation of those important institutions. At present there were twelve or thirteen Acts relating to benefit societies, and in his opinion all those Acts ought to be repealed, and one of a more simple and general character introduced in their place. The rules of those societies ought not to be placed in the power of a barrister, residing at a distance perhaps from the spot where the institution was formed; nor ought they to be strictly assimilated to each other, for local peculiarities would necessarily demand a body of regulations adapted to those peculiarities, and no barrister could, however able he might be, form one general table which would be applicable to every case. He therefore trusted that the noble Lord would allow a Committee; that he would grant those institutions the protection craved in the petitions which had been presented; and that he would, in short, allow them to do what they pleased with their own. It was his wish to aid his industrious countrymen; he had no personal object in view in bringing the subject before the House, and he hoped that the praiseworthy efforts of the humbler classes of their countrymen to assist each other, and to keep themselves independent of the Poor-laws, would meet with every encour- agement from that House. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for the appointment of a Committee.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

said, it was because he felt deeply the importance of benefit societies, that he would entreat the House not to grant the Committee which the hon. Gentleman had moved for. During the last few years several Committees had sat for the purpose of inquiring into the operation of the laws for the regulation of benefit societies: and the result had been, that a Bill was brought in by a noble friend of his, who was now a Member of the upper House, and that Bill having passed both Houses of Parliament was now the Act by which those societies were regulated. The hon. Member had talked much of the petitions and complaints made against that act; but what was the fact? Since 1829 only one petition had been presented from Scotland, one from Ireland, and about twenty from England. Now, what was the number of benefit societies in the United Kingdom? It did not fall much short of 5,000. If, then, there had been only from twenty to twenty five petitions presented to the House since the year 1829, there were, he thought, good grounds for concluding that the members of those societies were satisfied with the laws affecting the regulation of those institutions. He was convinced that to appoint a Committee, or to propose to alter the laws, would be productive, instead of a good, of a very bad, effect. To adopt such measures would create great anxiety in the minds of the members, and give rise to doubts which would retard the increase of those societies, and prevent many from joining those which were already formed, though they might be inclined at present to enroll themselves as members. The hon. Gentleman complained of grievances; but where was the hardship? By the Act, certain privileges were granted to those societies, and all that it required was, that if they chose to avail themselves of those privileges they should conform to certain things which the Act enjoined. Any Gentleman who had attended to the subject, and who had considered the operations of those societies before and since the passing of the Act, could not doubt that it had proved extremely beneficial. As far as he could understand the matter, the effect of that Act had been to give increased confidence to the members of those societies, and ad- ditional security to the poor man that his funds would not be wasted improperly. He would call the attention of the House to one fact, which he thought proved the beneficial tendency of the Act. Within a period of six years the contributors and the amount of contributions had nearly doubled. In 829, the number of contributors was 300,000, and the amount of money lodged 13,000,000l.; while by the last returns it appeared that the number of contributors was 600,000, and the amount contributed upwards of 20,000,000l. He objected to the appointment of a Committee, because the moment the subject was touched upon by one, alarm and insecurity would pervade the minds of the poorer class of society, who were the principal contributors. If the hon. Member thought any alteration of the existing law necessary, let him bring in a Bill for the purpose, and he (Mr. P. Thomson) for one would not oppose its introduction, but would give it his best consideration. The adoption of such a course would not create that alarm which would result from the appointment of a Select Committee. No information had reached him that such a Bill was necessary or would be productive of good, or would be one to which he could give his sanction; but he considered that a more preferable course for the hon. Member to follow than the one which he now called upon the House to adopt.

Colonel Wood

regretted the determination of the right hon. Gentleman not to grant a Committee. He thought the increase in the number of benefit societies, and their growing importance, formed a new reason for the appointment of a Committee; while the introduction of the recent measure of Poor-laws, which had thrown the poorer classes of society so much upon their own resources, rendered it a matter of the utmost importance to secure for the poor, annuities in their old age. In his opinion, benefit societies supplied those annuities on an extensive scale; and to have those institutions well regulated was an object worthy of the attention of that House. According to Mr. Price's tables the members, on the payment, periodically, of a trifling sum in their youth, were secured in the enjoyment of 6s. a-week when they reached sixty-five years of age, and 12s. a-week after seventy. If, then, the poor were not to look to the workhouse for relief, they ought to be encouraged to lay up a portion of their earnings, in the days of youth and strength, to secure them independence in their old age; and that House ought not to refuse a remedy for the grievances of which they complained, or to consider of a plan for extending the benefits which those societies were calculated to confer upon the industrious poor.

Mr. Hume

was sorry that a Committee was refused. When the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hoy) brought forward a similar motion last Session, the only objection on the part of Ministers was want of time; and he distinctly understood that a pledge had been given, that no opposition would, in this Session, be offered to the appointment of a Committee. He did think, that what had fallen from hon. Members on the opposite side of the House, regarding the changes which the Poor-laws were operating in society, was deserving of the most serious consideration; and if a Committee were granted, some scheme might be devised which, by means of those benefit societies, would render the lower classes of the people more independent of the relief afforded by the workhouse to the poor. He doubted whether legislation would be of any advantage to the larger societies; but there were smaller ones which did not come within the strict rule, and they could not avail themselves of the advantages enjoyed by others. He was aware that nothing could be more advantageous than to give every possible encouragement to provident societies. He had received from forty to fifty deputations from different societies, whose petitions he had presented, who approved of the Bill as a whole, hut wishing that some amendment of it should take place. He agreed with the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. P. Thomson) that it would be extremely improper to put this subject at sea, but an inquiry ought to be granted. He knew at least 100 societies that required it, and whose affairs could not be provided for by the working of the present Bill. Why, he wished to know, was there an objection to inquiry? Where was the danger? The only objection that could be stated was loss of time. If the Committee was granted, the hon. Member would have an opportunity of bringing forward the alleged grievances; and if they turned out not to be of a character that required redress, the House would not be bound to act upon them. But if any benefit could be conferred, why should it not be done? and sure he was, that the Government could not do better than encourage, to the utmost of their power, these societies. Though good might come from such an inquiry, harm could not; and he therefore hoped that, notwithstanding what had passed, a Committee would yet be granted.

Mr. Ingham

did think that the appointment of a Committee would not be productive of any good. It would not in his opinion encourage the formation of those societies, or promote the objects which they had in view; but, on the contrary, would tend to infuse doubts into the minds of the Members, and restrain those, who might be inclined, from joining them. What the grievance was of which they complained he could not understand. A few petitions had been presented against the present regulations; but to prove that those regulations were beneficial, they had the acquiescence of the whole remaining number of the 5,000 or 6,000 societies then existing. It was said that the fee paid to the barrister for revising the rules was beyond the power of some; but this he thought could hardly be the case; and he had frequently been deputed to convey to the barrister the warmest expressions of gratitude for the interest he had manifested in the societies in his vicinity. He objected to a Committee, on the ground that its inquiries would only tend to defeat the object which the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hoy) had in view.

Mr. Baines

thought a Committee would prove advantageous, as it would, in his opinion, tend to increase the number of benefit societies. Those societies tended to make the humbler classes of society independent in mind, and to elevate their character; while, at the same time, they provided a certain support for sickness and old age. An inquiry would, in his opinion be productive of benefit; and any suggestion from that House would be attended with the best effect. In the town which he had the honour to represent, they had failed to found those societies on a solid foundation, and he, therefore, thought that inquiry would give permanency and stability to such institutions. He could not understand the objection of the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade. The right hon. Gentleman had said that a Committee would give insecurity; but in his opinion it would give confidence; and, in combination with the Poor-laws, might render those societies highly beneficial. He would state a circumstance to the House which illustrated the character of the members of those institutions. He had made some inquiries of a gaoler who had informed him that of the 20,000 prisoners he had had in his custody, there was not one man connected with a benefit society. That fact demonstrated that those societies were a guard on public morals, and they further saved the poor-rates, and in every way were conducive to the public good. They tended to make the poor their own benefactors, to teach them provident habits, and to induce them to provide for old age and sickness out of their own industry, instead of trusting to the Poor-laws for support. He therefore trusted that they would receive every encouragement which that House could give them; and a Committee to inquire into the laws affecting their operation, and into the grievances of which they complained, would, in his estimation, be productive of the best results.

Mr. George F. Young

considered that the eulogy which had been passed by the hon. Member for Leeds on these societies was not called for, because but one sentiment prevailed on the subject, and that was, that every possible encouragement ought to be afforded them. He was in daily communication with persons belonging to benefit societies, and he had never heard any complaints from them; he therefore inferred from that circumstance, and inasmuch as he had not been called upon to support the motion of the hon. Member for Southampton, that inquiry was not desired.

Mr. F. Baring

said, that having been a member of three Committees on benefit societies, he was bound to say that the calculations on which many of their proceedings were based, were frequently very loose. He thought, however, that no specific good would be obtained by the appointment of a Committee. Mr. Port-man's Bill had in view the procuring more certain returns of the extent of the money operations of those societies, and the revision of them by a competent person, in order that new and more correct tables might be made out. This was an opera-lion requiring time for its full development, and that time had not yet been allowed to elapse. Under these circumstances, he really did not see what call there was for any new measure on the subject of these benefit societies; and as the appointment of a Committee would occasion great inconvenience, without a commensurate good, he thought the hon. Gentleman should bring forward some specific proposition of amendment before the question could be properly mooted.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that complaints had very generally been made in Ireland of the operation of the present laws. The leading features of the Bill and its principle were approved of, but great inconvenience had been found to attend some of its details. Thus a case was made out, not for a general inquiry, but for a specific proposition to remedy the evils that attended those details. The hon. Member for Southampton, therefore, had better introduce a Bill applicable to that part of the question. That Bill being referred to a Select Committee would afford an opportunity for considering the subject, and for receiving the suggestions of the different societies. Among other things he thought the mode of keeping the accounts might be improved.

Sir G. Strickland

said, that since Mr. Portman's Act and the system of revision had come into operation, there had been fewer failures and bankruptcies in these societies than before. He thought the present operation of these laws beneficial, and therefore that the hon. Gentleman ought to make out a strong case before he sought to disturb them.

Mr. Ewart

could say, from the communications which he had received from several benefit societies in the town which he had the honour to represent, that the people did not desire any change in the constitution of these societies, and that if a Committee were granted, many of them would send up deputies to prove the advantage of the present law. He thought that the suggestion which the hon. and learned Member for Kilkenny had just thrown out was a suggestion which would most effectually assist the hon. Member for Southampton in the accomplishment of his objects.

Mr. T. Duncombe

asserted, that the mechanics of the metropolis made great complaints of the laws regulating the constitution of these societies. Within the last two hours he had received a letter from a large body of them, requesting him to support the motion of the hon. Member for Southampton. He was afraid that great disappointment would be the result of their hearing that his Majesty's Ministers were determined to oppose the appointment of a Committee.

Mr. A. Trevor

supported the motion, as he thought a Committee would be productive of great advantage. In the country with which he was connected, the new Poor-laws had exercised a great influence upon these societies. It was said that the new Poor-laws had made the poorer classes come forward in societies to provide for themselves in sickness and old age, and had thus, to use the expression of the hon. Member for Leeds, rendered them benefactors to themselves. It was, therefore, a duty incumbent on the House to look closely at the regulations by which such societies were governed. He should be sorry if the motion of the hon. Member for Southampton was not granted.

Mr. Forster

observed, that hon. Members seemed to be under the impression that the calculations by which these societies were governed were formed upon Dr. Price's tables. Now, the law which fixed those tables as the basis for the calculations of these societies had been repealed. If hon. Members were of opinion that that law ought to be re-enacted, that might form a subject of inquiry. At the same time, he must observe, that he was inclined to think, from the communications he had received from these societies, that there were not sufficient grounds laid for the appointment of a Committee.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

insisted that the operatives of England disapproved almost universally of the system of law by which these societies were governed. They complained that it was unjust that they should not be allowed to invest their money as they pleased, but that they should be compelled to invest it in a manner of which they disapproved. Such of them as lived in the district with which he was locally connected, had desired him to express to Parliament their earnest wish that the present law should be changed, and that the benefit societies should be at liberty to adopt any system they might think proper, liable to the approbation of one or more of the neighbouring justices.

Mr. Bernal

said, that he had had several petitions to present with reference to the subject then before the House. He had also intended to speak upon the question; but, seeing the indisposition of the Speaker, he would not, unnecessarily, protract the discussion upon it.

The Speaker

immediately rose and said: —"There is no reason that I should not sit here to any hour that the House may think fit, and nothing would be more painful to me than to think that I had been the cause of unnecessarily postponing or delaying the public business."

Mr. B. Hoy

briefly replied. He could not see how any alarm, inconvenience, or incertitude, could be created among the labouring classes by acceding to his motion for a Committee. He could not accede to the suggestion of the hon. and learned Member for Kilkenny for this reason—that the right hon. President of the Board of Trade had that evening informed him, that if he (Mr. Hoy) brought in a Bill upon the subject, he should feel it to be his duty to meet it with the most strenuous opposition.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

said, that the hon. Member for Southampton had certainly misunderstood what had fallen from him when he last addressed the House. He had not said that he would oppose the Bill of the hon. Member; but having heard in private something of the nature of that Bill, he had said that he could not give it his support. He would now say, distinctly, that if the hon. Member chose to bring in his Bill, he would give it, as was his duty, every consideration in his power.

Mr. M. Philips

did not wish to enter into so wide a field of inquiry as the appointment of this Committee would of necessity open. Though there were many benefit societies in the south which he represented, he had not received from any of them any complaints against the existing state of the law upon that subject.

The House divided:—Ayes 66; Noes 142:—Majority 76.

List of the AYES.
Arbuthnot, hon. H. Crewe, Sir G.
Attwood, T. Duffield, T.
Bailey, J. Duncombe, T.
Bainbridge, E. T. Eaton, R. J.
Baines, E. Elley, Sir J.
Beauclerk, Major Elphinstone, H.
Bell, M. Forster, C. S.
Bernal, R. Gaskell, J. M.
Blackstone, W. S. Gladstone, W. E.
Bowles, G. R. Grimston, hon. E. H.
Bowring, Dr. Harvey, D. W.
Buckingham, J. S. Hawes, B.
Buller, C. Hinde, J.
Cole, hon. A. H. Hogg, J. W.
Compton, H. C. Humphery, John
Jervis, John Stormont, Lord
Jones, Wilson Talfourd, Sergeant
Irton, Samuel Thompson, Colonel
Leader, J. T. Thornley, T.
Lister, E. C. Trench, Sir F.
Lushington, C. Trevor, hon. A.
Marsland, H. Vere, Sir C.B.
Maunsell, T. P. Villiers, C. P.
Molesworth, Sir W. Walter, John
Neeld, J. Wason, R.
O'Brien, W. S. Whalley, Sir S.
Palmer, George White, Samuel
Pechell, Captain Wilks, John
Pringle, A. Williams, W.
Pryme, G. Wodehouse, E.
Roebuck, J. A. Wood, Colonel
Rushbrooke, Colonel
Ruthven, E. TELLERS.
Shirley, E. J. Hoy, James B.
Sibthorp, Colonel Hume, J.
List of the NOES.
Adam, Admiral Fector, J. M.
Aglionby, H. A. Finn, W. F.
Agnew, Sir A. Filzsimon, C.
Alston, Rowland Fitzsimon, N.
Angerstein, John Folkes, Sir W.
Attwood, M. Fort, J.
Barclay, D. Gaskell, D.
Barclay, C. Gillon, W. D.
Baring, T. Gordon, R.
Barnard, E. G. Graham, rt. hn. Sir J.
Bentinck, Lord G. Grattan, H.
Bethell, Richard Grimston, Lord Visc.
Bewes, T. Hall, Benjamin
Bish, T. Hamilton, G. A.
Blake, M. J. Handley, H.
Bodkin, J. Harland, W. C
Bolling, W. Hastie, A.
Borthwick, Peter Hay, Sir A. L.
Brady, D. C. Hayes, Sir E. S.
Bramston, T. W. Heathcote, G. J.
Bridgman, H. Holland, E.
Brotherton, J. Horsman, E.
Browne, R. D. Houstoun, G.
Buller, E. Howard. P. H.
Bulwer, E. L. Hurst, R. H.
Byng, G. S. James, William
Callaghan, D. Jones, T.
Campbell, Sir J. Knight, H. G.
Canning, rt. hn. Sir S. Law, hon. C. E.
Cayley, E. S. Lawson, A.
Chalmers, P. Lennox, Lord G.
Chaplin, Colonel Lennox, Lord A.
Chapman, A. Leveson, Lord
Chetwynd, Captain Loch, J.
Chichester, J. P. B. Long, W.
Chisholm, A. W. Lowther, J. H.
Collier, J. Martin, J.
Coote, Sir C. Maule, hon. F.
Crawley. S. Miles, W.
Dalmeny, Lord Miles, P. J.
Divett, E. Mosley, Sir O.
Donkin, Sir R. Mostyn, hon. E.
Ebrington, Viscount Murray, rt. hon. J.
Ewart, W. Musgrave, Sir R.
Fazakerley, J. N. Nagle, Sir R.
North, F. Stuart, Lord J.
O'Connell, D. Stuart. V.
O'Connell, M. J. Sturt, H. C.
Parker, J. Tancred, H. W.
Parry, Sir L. P. J. Thomson, C. P.
Perceval, Colonel Townley, R. G.
Philips, M. Troubridge, Sir E. T.
Phillipps, C. M. Tulk, C. A.
Plumptre, J. P. Tynte, C. J. K.
Potter, R. Vesey, hon. T.
Poulter, J. S. Vyvyan, Sir R.
Power, J. Walker, C. A.
Price, S. G. Wall, C. B.
Reid, Sir J. R. Wallace, R.
Rice, rt. hon. T. S. Warburton, H.
Richards, J. Weyland, Major
Richards, R. Wigney, Isaac N.
Rickford, W. Wilde, Sergeant
Rippon, Cuthbert Williams, R.
Roche, William Williams, W. A.
Roche, David Worsley, Lord
Rundle, John Wynn, rt. hon. C. W.
Sandon, Lord Visct. Young, G. F.
Scott, Sir E D. Young, J.
Stanley, E. J.
Stanley, Lord TELLERS.
Stewart, J. Ingham, R.
Strickland, Sir G. Baring, —