HC Deb 22 February 1838 vol 41 cc34-9
Mr. T. Duncombe

felt bound to state, that in making a motion to give an instruction to the Poor-law Committee he had two distinct objects in view—in the first place, to ascertain whether the system of the new Poor-law unions is superior to the system adopted under Gilbert's Act; and, secondly, in order that the individual guardians under Gilbert's Act should have a public opportunity of rebutting the charges and accusations that have been made against them by the Poor-law Commissioners in their third Report, merely, as it appeared to him, for the purpose of inducing the House to give their consent, that additional powers should be vested in the Commissioners for dissolving unions, without the consent of those guardians who objected to any alteration until they should be perfectly satisfied that a better, a more economical, and a more humane system could be substituted in lieu of the present system. There were several amusing passages in the third Report of the Commissioners, which at an earlier hour he would have felt it his duty to read; but there were other parts which caused a very great sensation in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the whole of which was at this moment incorporated in unions under Gilbert's Act. There were about 150 townships thus incorporated, and the Poor-law Commissioners wished the House to give them additional powers to dissolve these unions, without the consent of the guardians. The reasons why they stated they wished for these powers were, that the guardians, in the administration not only of relief, but in their own conduct, had been extremely corrupt, and that the system itself was vicious. But they were not satisfied with attributing dishonest motives to the guardians, but they wished the House to believe, that these indi- viduals were idiots and fools. He would venture to say, that if the Poor-law Committee that was sitting up stairs summoned some of those individuals from Yorkshire they would acquire more information than they had already with regard to the distribution of relief, and it would appear, that the Poor-law Committee were very much in want of practical information, which those much-abused individuals could give them. There were one or two passages in the Report to which he would call the attention of the House. The Report, at page 418, stated, that obstacles were raised on the part of the guardians to the dissolution of the unions, partly from adverse personal interests, and partly from the difficulty of convincing them of the general advantages of a change of system. The Report also stated, that under Gilbert's Act the guardians received, some 5l., some 10l., and some as much as 20l. each. Now, that he denied, with regard to the West Riding of Yorkshire. The Report stated, that many of the guardians were uncultivated and prejudiced, that they were unable to write their own names, that arguments of a general nature were totally unintelligible to them, and that they were guided in their proceeding by matters purely local. Now, with regard to the guardians being paid, he believed that the Poor Relief (Ireland) Bill provided, that the guardians should be paid. If the system were vicious with regard to Gilbert's Act, he would like to know why it should not be equally vicious with regard to Ireland. To illustrate what he had before adverted to, he would read what the Commissioners stated with with respect to the Oswestry union. They stated— At the last meeting of the, board of the Oswestry incorporation, when the directors again refused to dissolve, a butcher of the town was in the chair, who was himself supplying the house with meat, and the resolution was carried with every magistrate in the room voting against it. At the Montgomery and Pool union, at the largest meeting ever known there, the lord-lieutenant of the county was in the chair, himself owning one-fifth of the property in the incorporation, and strongly advocating the propriety of its dissolution, though he himself brought in the Act under which it was constituted. Six out of eight of the magistrates present voted on the same side, and nearly all the holders of the property affected, in the room; nevertheless the dissentients carried their point by a majority of eighty-four to thirty-six. Yet this was in direct op- position to evidence adduced to prove, that even by comparison with a neighbouring incorporation (and that, too, far from a well-managed one) their expenditure was fifty per cent higher than was necessary. Thus they, at once, attributed corrupt motives to the butcher: but he would like to know why similar motives should not be attributed to the lord-lieutenant who owned one-fifth of the property of the union, and to the six magistrates who, with him, voted for its dissolution? But was the butcher the only one who could be suspected of acting from corrupt motives? Had not the Poor-law Commissioners an interest in putting an end to Gilbert's Unions throughout the whole country? Were not the assistant commissioners receiving 30,000l. a-year, and was not the sum of 6,000l. a-year paid to those Commissioners who were sitting in Somerset House? He, therefore, thought, that he had as much right to say, that the Poor-law Commissioners had adverse, private, and personal interests in framing this Report, as the butcher had in giving his vote. He denied, that these guardians were the uneducated and incompetent persons they were reported to be; on the contrary, they were in most cases persons of property in the parish, and perfectly competent to manage the affairs of the parish with equal advantage to the rate-payers and the poor. At the same time they were quite ready to give evidence on the subject, which he (Mr. Duncombe) had no doubt would comprise much valuable information not only to this House, but to the Poor-law Commissioners. The guardians maintained, that the Gilbert system was better and more economical than the new one sought to be introduced by the Commissioners; but at the same time they were willing to have the question brought to an issue, and if the new system should be proved to be better than their own they were prepared to dissolve their boards in favour of the Commissioners. This was so reasonable a proposal that he hoped her Majesty's Government would consent to it, and give the guardians a fair and impartial hearing. The hon. Member then moved, that "it be an instruction to the Poor-law Committee to inquire on the subject of that portion of the third report of the Poor-law Commissioners which referred to the vicious system alleged by them to have been pursued by the existing corporations under Gilbert's Act."

Sir G. Strickland

, in seconding the motion, expressed his entire concurrence in what had been stated by his hon. Friend. Let hon. Members recollect, that when Gilbert's Act was passed and brought into operation, it was admitted on all hands that it worked well, and that it would be a public benefit to have the management of the whole poor placed under that act, Now, however, it appeared to be the wish to swamp that act, and to throw the whole authority in the management of the poor into the hands of the Poor-law Commissioners. He would support the proposed inquiry, because he believed it would have the effect of allaying the excitement which now existed in the country on this subject.

Lord J. Russell

did not understand that the motion would impose any newground of inquiry on the Poor-law Commissioners, and he would not, therefore, offer any objection to it. The Committee would have to consider the working of the law under Gilbert's Act, but he did not think that it would go into the inquiry whether the statements of the Poor-law Commissioners were correct or not. He would not at that time enter into the merits of Gilbert's Act. He would admit, that at the time it was passed it was an improvement on the law as it then stood, but abuses had crept in under it, which the New Poor-law would serve to correct. If the advocates of the Gilbert Act could show that it was better, he had no objection to hear them.

Mr. Hall

was glad that this motion was brought forward. In the parishes of St. Pancras and Marylebone which he represented, they were governed in the administration of the poor by a local act, and it worked well, and the parishioners were determined to oppose, by every means, the introduction of any other system.

Captain Pechell

said, that he was connected with an union of nineteen parishes in Sussex, which was governed by a local act. The Poor-law Commissioners wished to have the power of dissolving that union, but he thought that was a power which should not be given to them, but be reserved to the Legislature itself. With respect to the reports of the Commissioners, he must say, that in many instances they were most unfair. The guardians under the local act were charged with corruption. That charge he declared to be unfounded. They never derived any personal benefit from their exertions. The proposed inquiry would, he thought, be most useful in its results. It would show the absurdity of some portions of the Commissioners' reports. In one of these it was said, that where the new system had been adopted the men, who before had been discontented, now went to their work whistling and as happy as birds. This, however, he begged leave to deny.

Mr. Brotherton

supported the motion. He was sure that the payments under the present system were greater than at any former period. He spoke from experience for he was intimately acquainted with the management of the poor at Salford.

Motion agreed to.