HC Deb 02 March 1838 vol 41 cc374-85

The House went into Committee on the Poor Laws (Ireland) Bill. On Clause 47, empowering Commissioners to assist in the work of emigration, having been read,

Mr. J. Grattan

rose to move its omission from the Bill. He was convinced it would injure rather than assist the operation of the Bill. Emigration ought not to be carried on, if it were advisable to carry it on, by unions, guardians, or commissioners. For his own part he was more inclined to leave the labouring population of the country where they were, and engage them in the cultivation of waste lands—a course which he was sure would do more towards the furtherance of the measure than conferring such a power as this clause contained on guardians and commissioners. It empowered them to select any number of persons for emigration they pleased, and, in addition to the poor-rates, to tax the unions for the furtherance of that object. To that power he objected. He would not agree to give to the majority of guardians a power by which they might—he did not say they would—but by which they might contrive to relieve their own estates at the expense of the entire union. He had no objection to have his property taxed for the relief of casual destitution in workhouses, but he protested against this additional taxation at the discretion of the guardians in order to facilitate emigration. Let the noble Lord first bring the workhouse system into operation—let him perfect that system, and then, but not until then, let him see how far it would be advisable to carry on emigration, in conjunction, and after consulting, with the colonial Legislature. He thought the omission of this clause would tend very much to insure the success of the measure. The subject of emigration had better be altogether postponed until a general measure could be introduced with the consent of those authorities abroad, without whose assistance comprehensive beneficial results could not be expected.

Mr. Lynch

supported the clause. As a general proposition he altogether repudiated the doctrine that emigration was remedially applicable to Ireland. There was no doubt great want of employment, but was there not also an immense tract of waste land to be cultivated? The great evil was the undue competition for land, and that he contended would be materially diminished by the effect of this Bill acting as a stimulus to the landlords and furnishing, as it would, important facilities for the employment of the poor. Thus there would be no great need for emigration. Still urgent cases might occur, and with respect to such he was willing to vest in the Commissioners the powers they would exercise under this clause. At the same time he was anxious to know precisely how the expense was to be borne—whether by the unions alone or partly only by the unions, partly by the public, and partly by the landlords, whose surplus tenantry it might be necessary to remove?

Captain Jones

inquired whether the money to be raised under this clause by the boards of guardians, and which was to be applied, under the direction of the Commissioners, in conducting or assisting "the emigration of poor persons," was to be confined to particular unions or thrown into a general fund?

Viscount Morpeth

said, it would be applied to the poor resident in the particular unions; but it was perfectly discretionary with the guardians to avail themselves of the power of this clause or not, as they thought best. It was not proposed to throw any special charge upon particular landlords. Treating of emigration generally, the best way of conducting it he thought would be by the unassisted efforts of private individuals, who knew what was good for their own estates, and who might safely be trusted with the clearing of them, if they thought it advantageous to do so. He was, therefore, opposed to those who would raise a general public fund for any wide and comprehensive scheme of emigration. The absence of a law of settlement must detract very much from the efficacy of this clause, and from the temptation which any particular locality might have to disembarrass itself of its surplus population. At the same time there might be a special case, such as an unusual degree of dearth or famine, a contagious disorder, or a great change in the mode of cultivation, which might lead a district or union to avail themselves of this clause. And after any general settled and consenting system had been established, tending on the whole to assimilate the burdens over the entire surface of Ireland, they might also combine to give effect to this clause by ridding themselves of a corresponding amount of their superfluous and chargeable population. The clause was merely permissive; it might do some good, and he did not see how it could produce any inconvenience.

Sir E. Sugden

thought the expression "poor of the union" as it stood in the clause extremely ambiguous, particularly as there was no law of settlement in Ireland. He very much doubted whether it would be found to work beneficially.

Mr. Lucas

observed, that objections had been taken to the clause, which had been in no wise answered by the Government. If emigrants could be sent to the Canadas for 5l. a-head, they could be brought back from thence to Ireland for the same money; and if, on arriving in Canada, they found their speculation likely to be unsuccessful, they could obtain 5l. by a month's labour. They would then come back to the same part of Ireland which they had left, and how were the guardians to get rid of those paupers a second time?

Mr. O'Connell

opposed the clause, because he could not see what benefit they were likely to derive from such a system of emigration. It was calculated that the population of Ireland increased 50,000 every year; and even if they were to send out from it 50,000 emigrants annually, they would only just leave the thing as it was at present, and would not relieve the country from one iota of the distress now existing. But was there any wisdom in such a plan? Had they considered what it would cost to send out 50,000 emigrants every year? It had been said, that this clause would only enable the Commissioners to send out labourers, but that was not so. But even supposing it to be so, if they persisted in sending out the labourers of Ireland, they would soon find that they were sending away from it its blood and its sinews, and were leaving the land without men to cultivate it. But did this clause enable the Commissioners to send out labourers only? Certainly not; it enabled them to send out the widow, the infirm, and the aged; and it would be easy to make them wish to leave the country by placing every kind of difficulty and hardship in the way of the relief afforded to them. The hon. and learned Member for Galway had contended that if they joined the workhouse system with the system of emigration, they would take away the competition for land now existing in Ireland? What likelihood was there of such a result being produced? According to one of the reports which had been laid on the table, the number of destitute persons in Ireland was 380,000, and of that number 365,000 were without a single acre of land. Out of this number, then, of 380,000, there were only 25,000 persons at any rate who could enter into any competition for land, the remainder did not enter into any competition for land, and therefore ought not to be described as competitors for it. To imagine that they could make the poor of Ireland rich by means of a Poor-law, and to pass this Bill as it then stood, appeared to him to be anything but wise policy. He implored the House, therefore, to get rid of this emigration system; for the power granted by this clause was a frightful power to put into the hands of any guardians of districts in Ireland, or into the hands of any single Commissioner in Dublin. It formed no part of the original plan of Poor-laws for Ireland, and was not even an amendment upon it. If they passed this clause, they must have a clause of settlement along with it. Last year the noble Lord (John Russell) had himself depicted in strong colours the difficulties which stood in the way of any system of emigra- tion. Emigration had been going on for years steadily in Ireland. Had it benefited that country? Every man who knew anything of the state of Ireland knew that it had not. He concluded by repeating his declaration that he intended to vote against the clause.

Lord John Russell

admitted that, in stating his opinion of the Poor-law for Ireland introduced last year, he had not laid any great stress on the advantage which that country was likely to derive from a system of emigration. Indeed, he did not even now think that such an amount of emigration could be practically commanded as some hon. Members supposed was necessary for the regulation of the labour-market in Ireland. In defending the clause as it then stood, he did not intend to defend it on the ground that it would produce great emigration, and that that emigration would be of advantage to Ireland. He only meant to defend it on this ground, that in certain cases it might be useful, and to meet such a contingency it was fitting to give the means of assisting emigration to the board of guardians of the district, and to the commissioner combined. Indeed, he should be ready to alter the clause so as to limit the power of the commissioner to facilitate emigration to the cases of such poor persons only as were recommended by the guardians of districts, in which certain sums had been raised by the union for the express purpose of emigration. The noble Lord moved additional words to give effect to this opinion.

Sir R. Bateson

opposed the clause on account of the frightful expenses by which this system of emigration would be attended, and also on account of the frightful power with which it invested the commissioner and the board of guardians.

Mr. Wyse

expressed himself strongly in favour of granting extensive encouragement to emigration. He could not see that any of the evils which some hon. Gentlemen seemed to dread were to be anticipated from such a measure. The apprehension that the vacuum caused by emigration in a particular district would be filled up by an influx of destitute persons from other parts of the country, or that the price of labour would be injuriously raised by it he regarded as groundless. He thought it would have the ultimate effect of improving and extending the cultivation of land, and that it would re- lieve the country of a superabundant population, which prevented the development of its energies.

Mr. Sergeant Jackson

thought the clause, as modified by the amendment of the noble Lord (J. Russell), would be most beneficial.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that as the bill stood, a premium was given to those persons who refused to act as guardians without being paid; in other words, the guardians under the bill would be all paid officers, and it was material to bear in mind, that if the bill passed as it stood, these paid guardians would have it in their power to select whom they pleased for emigration, and send them out at the expense of the union.

Mr. W. S. O'Brien

observed, that the Government had postponed the clause for the payment of the guardians with a very strong inclination, to all appearance, to alter that part of the bill agreeably to the opinions of the Irish Members.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that when he was called upon to vote for this clause, he must declare, that he entertained very strong doubts as to the advantages to be derived from any system of emigration, and he was very doubtful whether they ought to adopt a measure of emigration at all in any bill for the relief of the poor in Ireland. He hoped the noble Lord, the Secretary for Ireland, would consent to postpone this clause, as the bill would go to Ireland with a very great obstacle in the way of its popularity, if it should show that the House was desirous of deporting the best men in the country.

Viscount Morpeth

said, he would agree to the proposal of the noble Lord if it were not that he well knew that if the Government consented to withdraw the clause, the first thing they would hear from Ireland, would be, that they had withdrawn the only clause of the bill that was popular in that country.

After several verbal amendments had been made in the clause,

Mr. J. Grattan

said, he still retained his first opinion. He thought the total omission of the clause a matter of so much importance that he must persist in dividing the Committee upon it.

The Committee divided on the question that the clause stand part of the Bill:—Ayes 71; Noes 26: Majority 45.

The clause as amended agreed to.

SIR E. Sugden

upon his legs, objected to that part of the 49th clause which renders every married woman liable to maintain her child, and every child of her husband. It might admit of a question, whether there ought to be such a clause at all. But as the clause was introduced, it was manifestly most unjust, as far as it imposed new and fresh liabilities upon married women, without giving them any corresponding benefit or equivalent. In strict principle, he thought the whole of the clause should be rejected, but he would not divide the House with that object, although he would support any hon. Member who was so inclined. He thought it unfair, he considered it even iniquitous, to call upon a married woman, while she was married, to maintain, not only her own children, but all the children which her husband might have had by a previous marriage. If a man married a woman, he became the father of their joint children, while those children were in a state of infancy; but a woman ought not to be compelled to adopt her husband's children. She supposed, in marrying, that the husband would maintain her children and herself. Nothing, in his opinion, could be more unjust, than imposing a liability where, at the same time, they did not give a right to relief. Looking at the working of the Bill, too, the woman might be subject to a severe penalty. The husband might abscond, and then the poor wretched woman would have the whole support of the children thrown upon her. The imposing of such a liability, he thought was altogether alien to the principles of the British constitution. He should be sorry to see the Bill go to Ireland with such an unnecessarily harsh clause. There was a subsequent part of the clause upon which he should divide the House. He alluded to that part of the clause by which it was provided that every widow should be liable to maintain her child. To this he objected on the same principle that he objected to the preceding part—namely, that it created a new liability without conferring any corresponding benefit. He objected, also, to that part of the clause by which the mothers of bastard children are rendered liable to maintain them. He supposed the object was to assimilate the law of Ireland upon the subject to the law of this country. By the law of Ireland, as it at present stood, there was no obligation on the father of a bastard child to maintain it. When the clause was introduced into the law of this country, where a totally different state of circumstances existed, and where such a degree of confidence was felt that intercourse was sometimes allowed under the expectation that a marriage would afterwards take place, it was found to work wonders, and to bring about a very great change in the habits of the people. That did not exist in Ireland. Why, then, he asked, was the woman now to be exclusively punished? If they were to give a premium to licentiousness on the part of the man, why should they not give the woman corresponding protection?

The Attorney-General

said, that if he thought the clause would have the effect stated by his right hon. and learned Friend, he should certainly oppose it also, because, as the Bill did not entitle to relief, it ought not to impose obligations such as his right hon. and learned Friend had referred to. But his learned Friend would see that the 49th and 50th clauses, taken together, meant only that this obligation should exist for the purposes of the Bill—that is, that where the mother was actually unable to support her children, or the children of her husband by a former marriage, and that they were relieved, she should be considered as in the same situation as if she herself had sought relief, and should go into the workhouse. Now, this was only for the purposes of the Bill. The same rule would apply to the husband, but it was only for the purposes of the Bill. He would certainly recommend to his noble Friend (Lord Morpeth) to omit that part of the clause which made the wife liable to the support of the children of her husband by a former wife. With this omission, the two clauses, taken together, were, he conceived, quite reasonable for the purposes of the Act. By the next (the 50th clause) it was declared, that the relief given under the Act to a wife or child should be considered to be given to the person declared by the Act to be liable to maintain such wife or child, and the said person should thereupon be deemed chargeable to the union in which such relief should be given.

Mr. O'Connell

wished, that Irish Gentlemen would understand the importance of the point which they were now discussing. The effect of the clause would be to prevent, as much as possible, the Irish labourer from coming over to England and earning wages. That, he assured them, would be its practical effect. If, under this clause, a man's family were in a state of destitution, and he was unable to assist them, and if he came over to England, and his family went into the workhouse, the first deduction that would be made from his miserable wages, would be the sum expended upon his family in the workhouse when absent. Now, this might be very right, but still it was a great alteration in the present state of things as regarded the labouring population in Ireland. Under the present state of things it was certainly true, that when a poor man left his family to try and earn wages in England, his family were thrown upon the charity of the world; but then the husband and father who was absent from them stinted himself of every enjoyment; he slept in the fields or the ditches, and was happy if he could receive the shelter of a barn. He made his way back, after living most miserably; he returned without almost expending a farthing, and was then able to indulge himself with his little family for several months. By the present Bill, this was to be entirely changed, and they even held out by their law a temptation to the man not to come back. It would break what had always been the boast of the Irish peasanty—namely, the tie of affection. And this law of charity and benevolence to Ireland was to have this practical effect. He thought that this was a frightful clause, and he was sure it would not have been endured as it stood unless the Attorney-General had yielded to the argument of the right hon. Gentleman opposite.

Sir E. B. Sugden

said, it was his decided opinion that the clause, as it now stood, would make the parties liable to maintain their children, legitimate or illegitimate, and those of the wife. This was shown by the concluding words of the clause, which his hon. and learned Friend, the Attorney-General, had read, for those words made the husband or mother of the wife or child relieved "thereupon chargeable to the union in which such relief shall be given." That might be very well if the law of settlement were allowed; but the Bill did not allow any settlement, and yet the clause made a man or woman chargeable to the union in which relief had been given to their child. This construction was further proved by the penalties enacted in the 53rd clause.

Lord John Russell

said, it was intended to make important alterations in that clause with respect to the penalties.

Sir E. B. Sugden

was glad to hear it, as it would improve it; but he contended that it would be a still greater improvement in the Bill to strike out the 49th and 50th clauses. They were not at all necessary to the working of the measure, and would prove injurious to it.

Mr. Woulfe

admitted, that there was no right of relief in the Bill, but relief de facto would be given, and he thought there should be a corresponding liability.

Sir E. B. Sugden

had no objection to the liability of the father for relief given to the child, and if that were the only object of the clause he should withdraw his opposition.

The Solicitor-General

said, that the right hon. Gentleman's object would be attained by the omission of the 53d clause, which the Government were prepared to allow.

Sir E. B. Sugden,

under those circumstances, was not opposed to the substance of the clause.

Several amendments were made in the clause, which was, as amended, agreed to.

On clause 52,

Mr. O'Connell

said, that the only persons this clause would affect would be the thrifty, whose wages would be attachable in the hands of their employers. It would be introducing a new principle into Ireland never yet heard of, and would interfere with the diligent in favour of the unthrifty. In the bill of last year this clause was struck out. After all, too, it was not worth while for the Government to retain it. He thought it was calculated to do a great deal of mischief, and, therefore, the better way would be to leave it out of this Bill also.

Lord John Russell

said, that last year this clause was, as he believed, not struck out, but only postponed for further consideration. He did not think that any great benefit would be derived from applying the clause to Ireland, although he was disposed to be favourable to the general principle it laid down, and therefore he was ready to postpone it for the present. He should certainly not think of pressing it, unless he found the general sense of the House was in its favour.

Clause postponed.

Clause 53, imposing penalties for desertion of families, was next proposed.

Sir E. B. Sugden

wished to call the attention of the noble Lord (J. Russell) to the wording of the first part of this clause, taken in connection with the 50th section. By that clause it was provided, that relief given to the wife or child should be considered as relief given to the husband or father. Now, the clause under discussion said, that if a person was relieved at the expense of any union, if he refused to be lodged, &c., he should be liable to be imprisoned for one calendar month. The noble Lord would see, therefore, that if a person were relieved in legal construction by relief being given to his wife or child, he would become liable to the penalties of this clause. He wanted, accordingly, to know whether it was the noble Lord's intention in every case to force a person into the workhouse, together with his wife and family. Suppose a labourer with his wife and three or four children, and one of them an incurable cripple. He did not see how, as the clause stood, the guardians could receive this child into the workhouse, without obliging the labourer also to come into the workhouse with his wife and the rest of his family.

Lord John Russell

said, that as a general rule, it certainly was intended that parents should not obtain relief for their children without coming into the workhouse themselves, if the guardians required it, but he saw nothing in this clause which would prevent the guardians, in a case such as that mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, from exercising a discretionary power.

Mr. Lynch

hoped the noble Lord would introduce a vagrancy law into Ireland, without which this Bill, which he considered as introducing a system of police, would be comparatively ineffectual.

Lord John Russell

agreed with his hon. and learned Friend in thinking that there should be a law with respect to vagrancy in Ireland, and he had shown that such was his opinion by clauses which had been introduced into the present Bill; but he certainly considered that, whether such a law was passed now or at a future period, no good would result from it until the effects of the present Bill had been seen. He did not think that a vagrancy law would operate, unless the feelings of those who had to administer the law went along with it, and that was not likely to happen, until places were established where the really destitute might be provided for.

Mr. O'Connell

thought there was some difficulty in saying what was the meaning of the word "abscond" in this clause. It appeared to him that it must be interpreted to mean "not being within the workhouse." Now, if this were the case, the 56th clause would operate very harshly, for if a person was suspected to have brought himself under the penalties of the 63d clause, now under consideration, any justice of the peace might issue his warrant to apprehend him and bring him before himself or any other justice of the peace, to be dealt with as directed by the Act. What he would suggest would be, to let the guardians have the power of taking in part of the family, if they thought fit, and to do away with the liability of the parent.

After a few words from Mr. J. Grattan, and Lord Clements,

Mr. O'Connell

suggested the words, "who shall have absconded out of such workhouse," which he thought, would be sufficiently specific to prevent any mistake as to the vagrants referred to. It was not perhaps generally known to hon. Gentlemen that Mr. Bolingbroke, in making an abstract of the Irish statutes, when he came to the word "vagabond," said, Vide Irish gentleman."

The clause, as amended, was agreed to. Clauses to the 59th were disposed of.

The House resumed.

The Committee to sit again.