HC Deb 07 August 1838 vol 44 cc1045-53

On the Report of the Committee appointed to inquire into the operation of the Poor-Law having been brought up,

Mr. Fielden

said, he could not let this report be brought up without saying a few words of the manner in which the committee had conducted the investigation, and upon that document which was the result of it. His proposition was, that the committee should examine those who nobody could doubt were the best witnesses—the labouring people and the rate payers. He proposed at the first meeting of the committee that they should procure certain returns from those unions in which the rates had been reduced 50 per cent. This was objected to, upon the ground that the returns would be too elaborate to be allowed, and too difficult to procure. He then proposed they should take those unions in which the reduction had been 60 per cent.; and the first three on the list of this description being Ampthill, Bedford and Woburn, the committee ordered the returns from those unions. He (Mr. Fielden) sent two men down into Bedfordshire to make inquiries as to the condition of the people, whom the returns showed to be deprived of parochial relief, under the new law; and he was in hopes that the committee would have gone into a full examination of the rate-payers and labourers of those unions, as well as into the examina- tion of commissioners, guardians, and officers of the new law. But he had been grievously disappointed. The House would find, by looking at the evidence, that the committee had been engaged no less than thirty-six days and a half in examining commissioners and guardians; indeed the commissioners alone had taken twenty days out of the fifty-two days the whole examination had taken up. Four days had been allotted to the medical enquiry; leaving ten days and a half for the examination of witnesses against the law, and this notwithstanding half a million of persons had petitioned against it, stating their reasons. The commissioners and the guardians, too, were persons actually upon their trial; they were persons who had been complained of, and the committee was originally appointed for the purpose of ascertaining whether those complaints were just. Would the House be satisfied, would the country be satisfied that this committee had conducted an impartial examination, when it was found that thirty-six days and a half out of fifty-two days had been allotted to the e amining of persons who were on their trial? His main objection to the law was founded on his firm conviction that it would reduce the wages of the labouring people; and if he had nothing more than even the assistant-commissioners to satisfy him upon that point, their evidence had shown him that that had already been the result. The House should have foreseen this before it had passed the law. When it affected to throw men upon their resources it should have been certain that they had those resources; but the cruelty of this law was now becoming obvious in all times of depression of trade, and in the intervals between the different harvests in the agricultural parts of the country. The report stated, in contradiction to what was the fact, that the "real interests of all classes of the community have been consulted in the operation of the law." He was so thoroughly satisfied that this was unfounded, he had seen such strong proof that it had brought misery upon the labouring classes, that he had thought it his duty to move an amendment to this part of the report. Hon. Members would perceive, that it was stated on the authority of Mr. Overman, vice-chairman of the Ampthill board, that the wages of the labourers in his neighbourhood had been raised since the law came into operation. Indeed, in illustration of the fact, he stated what he himself paid upon his own farm in 1834, and what he paid in 1837; that is to say, he gave them a table containing the weekly payments for every week, in those years, to his labourers, and the totals showed an increase in the gross amount in the year 1837. So far Mr. Overman made out the case very well; but in his previous examination he had stated not only that wages had been raised, but that many more men had been employed on the land; and here Mr. Overman had failed to establish his case, but had completely succeeded in establishing the point which he (Mr. Fielden) aimed to prove, namely a reduction in wages. Mr. Overman in 1834 and 1835 employed twenty men and thirteen boys, and the gross amount which he states he paid to them in the year is 775l. 6s. 1d. He states, that in 1837 and 1838 his gross payment in wages was 870l. 8s., which was doubtless a considerable increase in the money spent in wages; but he employed in the latter year eleven boys and twenty-six men, which, as any one would find on calculating it, proved a reduction of 11d. per week in money wages. As Mr. Overman and his table were cited in the report as the proof of an advance in wages, he had proposed an amendment to that part of the report, which he would read to the House. It was as follows:— That so far from the real interests of all classes having been consulted by the administration of the Poor-law Amendment Act, as expressed in page twenty-fire of their report, the interests of the poor have suffered by the withdrawal of relief and reductions of wages, as appears by the evidence (15,305, 15,318, 15,361 Ceeley, and 16,472 and 16,474 Rauron, and 14,345 and 14,349, 14,353, 14,354, 14,370, 14,479, and 14,480 Overman). The statement of weekly wages paid for farm labourers during four years, by Mr. T. W. Overman, accompanied by the list of labourers in his employment from July 1834, to July 1835, and from July 1837 to July 1838, in the former of which years he had twenty men and thirteen boys, and in the latter twenty-six men and eleven boys, shows the following result: In this calculation five shillings per week only are allowed for the boys, in both years, although Mr. Overman in his evidence, 14,378, says boys' wages had been advanced.

1384 AND 1835.
£. s. d.
Thirteen boys, each 52 weeks, or 676 weeks for one boy at 5s. 169 0 0
Brought forward 169 0 0
Twenty men, each 52 weeks, or 1,040 weeks for one man at 11s. 8d. 606 13 4
775 13 4
Amount paid as per Mr. Overman's statement 775 6 4
1837 and 1838.
Eleven boys, each 52 weeks, or 572 weeks for one boy at 5s. 143 0 0
Twenty six men, each 52 weeks, or 1,352 weeks for one man, at 10s. 9d. 726 14 0
869 14 0
Amount paid as per Mr. Overman's statement, 870 8 0
A reduction of labourers' wages in money of from 11s. 8d. per week in 1834–5, to l0s. 9d. per week in 1837–8, or 8 per cent., is thus shown by Mr. Overman's statement; and 11s. 8d. would buy the labourer 129½ pints of wheat at the average price of wheat per quarter (40s. 2d.) during the year 1834; whereas 10s. 9d. would purchase him only 99 pints of wheat at the average price (55s. 9d.) during the year 1837, being a decline in his command over wheat of 25 per cent., and taking wheat at the average price of the week ending 5th July last, his command over wheat then, as compared with 1834, is reduced 37½ per cent.; and this has been going on under the operation of the new Poor-law, notwithstanding Mr. Overman stated in his evidence that there is an increased demand for labour (14,336 and 14,337), no scarcity of work (14,132 and 14,467), that wages have been advanced, and the men do more work (14,183, 14,185, and 14,209), and that farming has not been so prosperous for many years as in 1837 (14,507). He had moved this resolution when complaining in the committee of the whole report, and he asked whether he had not a right to complain of such a delusive statement being sent forth to the country as that which he had just pointed out? Before he had become a Member of this committee, he had imagined that the handloom weavers, and some others in the North, were the most miserable of the English labouring people; but he had heard enough confessed in the committee to show him, that if the people of the South were not now as badly off as the hand-loom weavers, it would take but a short time to bring them to the condition of those miserable people. He would pause, in order to ask the House whether it was not both cruel and impolitic to continue this wicked and obnoxious laws, if there was any chance that its results would be such as he had spoken of? He could point out good, honest, and industrious labourers, men whose characters were not disputed, who with their families, were living now upon three pence per head per day. Mr. Ceely, a surgeon from Aylesbury (whose evidence by-the-bye, was well worthy of being read) stated, that he was in considerable practice, that he was well acquainted with Aylesbury and the labouring people in its vicinity, and he gave it as his opinion that, sickly and distressed as they were before, their lot had become considerably worse since the new law came into operation. That he had inquired at what he deemed the best sources of information, the tradespeople, those who sold to the labourers the food on which they lived, and all had told him that they sold now less provisions to this class of persons than they did before the new law. If this was fact, he would ask, could anything be more convincing? If the baker, the grocer, and the cheesemonger were now selling less food to the labouring man than they did before the new law, was not the conclusion forced upon them that the new law had deprived the labouring man of the means he had before it passed? In the reports of the committee it would be found that Weale, the assistant-commissioner, had made a statement of the wages of agricultural labourers in Somersetshire, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire, and the average rate of wages afforded 1s. 5d. per head per week for the labourer and his family. Mr. Rawson, a manufacturer at Leicester, stated on his own experience, that wages had been reduced one-third since the new law came into operation, and he apprehended a continued reduction. He had sent two men down into the neighbourhood of Ampthill to make inquiries in that neighbourhood, and they took a survey of the parish of Westoning in particular; they obtained the name, number in family, and earnings of every labouring man within the parish for the years 1834 and 1837, and the result, which he would state as short as possible, was a reduction of sixteen per cent. in their means of living. The tables establishing these matters had been put in by Mr. Turner, one of the persons whom he had sent to make the inquiries. They had been attacked in the committee, and Mr. Pearce, chairman of the Woburn board, had been brought up to the committee to refute them; and, according to Mr. Pearce, these labourers were in the receipt of much more money than Mr. Turner had made out in his tables; but how was it? Why, Mr. Pearce finds that the earnings of the families of the labourers, that is, the earnings of the wives and children of the labourers in Westoning, at straw-platting, makes an important difference in the total earning of the family during the year. Mr. Pearce found little to dispute as to the wages of the labouring men. All the difference that there was between his tables and Mr. Turner's, consisted in this, that Turner had stated the earnings of the families at too little, according to Mr. Pearce's account. He (Mr. Fielden) was prepared to dispute the truth of Mr. Pearce's statement. He had the names of the witnesses ready, and amongst them the names of persons who could have spoken from experience and with authority upon the subject; but these witnesses he could not get before the committee. In the absence of them, however, the House might find, by turning to Mr. Pearce's evidence, that when it was the object of the different boards of guardians in Bedfordshire to send families into the north of England to the factories, then the earnings of the wives and children were set down in Mr. Muggridge's returns, as amounting to little or nothing. The earnings of a mother and all her children, were stated in one instance at 3s. 6d. only per week; whereas Mr. Pearce stated, that a young woman in Bedfordshire of from thirteen to nineteen years of age could earn from 5s. to 7s. per week at straw platting. As to the men taking their earnings as stated by Mr. Pearce himself, the House would find that they were getting no more than would afford 1s. 10d. per week per head for themselves and families. He (Mr. Fielden) thought he had stated enough already, citing even the authority of commissioners and guardians, to prove to the House, that it was necessary to keep a watchful eye on the condition of the agricultural labourers. He had received letters from all parts of the country, from so far west as Barnstaple, and so far east as Norwich, from Carlisle, and from many places in the interior of the country, addressed to him by magistrates, clergymen, guardians of boards, and by tradesmen, all complaining of the operation of this law, and all stating it to have the effect which he had anticipated with dread, and which he had often stated to the House. It was only yesterday that he had received a communication out of Devonshire, in which, amongst other things, great complaint was made of the enormous size of the unions, causing what was equal to a denial of relief to all but those who were able-bodied enough to walk fifteen or twenty miles to wait upon the board of guardians; and this brought him to page sixteen of the report before the House. A compliment was there paid to the commissioners for the "skilful and judicious arrangements which they have made, and for the great discrimination which they had shown in adapting their operations to local peculiarities." But this compliment was not in unison with an opinion given in p. 14, where the report said, "Your committee are of opinion, that it does appear that the size of the medical districts, in many instances, is inconveniently large," while in the 24th page of the report, the House would find a specific recommendation appended to it, to give the Commissioners powers to reconstruct their own unions. This he apprehended would require a statute; so that these able and judicious men had formed a set of unions so inconvenient even to themselves, that they were already applying to Parliament, through this committee, for powers to undo their own work. Why, it appeared to him, that these persons had shown a want of ability in the only part of their duties that required wisdom. To alter the old-established divisions of the country, and form a set of new ones that should be more convenient to the people, was, doubtless, a matter that required judgment and discrimination; but, these persons had shown that it was not possessed by them in this particular at any rate, and therefore, he protested strongly against this part of the report, which paid them a compliment in one page, on the very subject on which, in another page, it condemned them. At the same time, that the report recommended that the commissioners should have the means given to them of reconstructing the unions that they had already formed, it also recommended, that they should have power given to them to dissolve all the Gilbert unions, and to nullify all provisions of local acts all over the country relating to the relief of the poor. He hoped that the Gilbert unions, and those places where the relief of the poor was now administered under local acts, would watch this subject well. He hoped, that the representatives would be reminded of their duties, and that the country would not be thrown into additional confusion by additional powers being given to those persons who were obliged by their application for a fresh act to confess their incompetency. He (Mr. Fielden) not only hoped that the commissioners would have no further powers given to them, but he hoped that the representatives of the people would come up to Parliament in the next Session, prepared to negative any proposition that might be made to Parliament for continuing the powers they at present had.

Lord Granville Somerset

did not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in stating his own views upon the subject; but when he entered into circumstances of which the committee alone was cognizant, and of which the House as yet knew nothing, lie put it to the Speaker, and to the House, whether the hon. Gentleman was treating either the committee or the subject quite fairly.

The Speaker

had not had the good fortune to collect much of what had fallen from the hon. Member, but the greater part of that which he had heard certainly appeared to him to relate to matters of which the committee was exclusively in possession. The report of the committee was now placed upon the Table. If the hon. Member dissented from any part of it, it would be competent to him to state his objections at length on some future day, after the report had been printed and placed in the hands of the House; but he put it to the hon. Member whether, at the present moment, it was either fair or reasonable to enter into a long discussion on a report of the contents of which the House was not yet in possession.

Mr. P. Scrope

, from the more immediate vicinity of his seat to that of the hon. Member had enjoyed the singular advantage of hearing much that had fallen from him, and he begged to assure the House that the hon. Member had gone through the greater part of the report, and had raised an objection to every page of it. Amongst other things the hon. Member had complained of the want of due attention, on the part of the committee, to the evidence adduced before them. Now, of all the members of the committee, the hon. Member for Oldham was certainly the very last who had a right to complain upon that head, because, throughout the whole of the inquiry, the committee had paid the most watchful and the most anxious attention to every particle of evidence which the hon. Member had it in his power to bring forward. He would not attempt to follow the hon. Member through the voluminous statement into which he had entered. He would leave the report to answer for itself, perfectly satisfied that as a majority of the committee had concurred in it, so also would the majority of the public feel that they were perfectly justified in adopting it.

Report laid on the Table.

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