HC Deb 21 July 1840 vol 55 cc860-7

Lord J. Russell moved, that the Poor-law Commission Bill be read a third time.

Mr. Grimsditch

rose to move as an amendment that the bill be read a third time that day three months. This commission had been appointed six years ago for the purpose of establishing an uniform system of Poor-law in the various unions into which the kingdom was to be divided. Those unions had been pretty generally established, but if they had not been universally so in the kingdom, the system was now so well understood that the machinery of the commissioners was no longer necessary. He perceived, however, that though the Poor-law Commissioners was intended at first to be only temporary, yet that it was contemplated to have a body something in the nature of a Poor-law commission permanently at Somerset-house, in order to carry out more generally and strictly the favourite project of establishing a workhouse test throughout the country. He had no objection, whatever, to have that test applied to the idle and the dissolute, but he should ever protest against its application to the honest but unfortunate poor. He did earnestly hope that early in the next Session Government would bring in a bill for the total abolition of the commission, and for the relaxation of the workhouse test, and thus set the minds of the people at rest upon the matter, and get rid of that general discontent and dissatisfaction which prevailed with respect to it. The hon. Member concluded by submitting his amendment to the House.

Mr. Slaney

contrasted the state of the poor in our workhouses in former times with what it was at present. Instead of that indiscriminate admixture of poverty and vice which formerly prevailed, they now had that classification which tended so much to improve the condition of the inmates. He also contended that the condition of the poor generally was improved—that those incendiary fires which prevailed so extensively in agricultural districts some years ago had now all ceased—a proof of the improved moral condition of the labouring classes. The New Poor Law had also saved three millions a year to the country. But, large as that saving was, he would not defend it on that ground, if he did not find it in other respects beneficial to the public. He would refer as an illustration of the improved system in workhouse unions to the Norwood schools. Formerly the system with respect to the conduct of the children in those schools was so bad, that few persons could be induced to take them as servants; whereas at present, the demand for them as servants was greater than the age of those in the schools could supply. He would admit that some relaxation of the workhouse test might be desirable in some cases, and if that were done, the law would work most beneficially for the country.

General Johnson

denied, that the saving so much talked of had any existence, except in the speeches of those who spoke of them, and eventually it would be found that the expenses would be increased. With respect to the Poor Law Commissioners, he would say, that they had ample time to carry out the law, and were no longer required. The act itself was so opposed to the feelings of the people, that it would be impossible to work it without the aid of the new rural police. He would support the amendment.

Mr. L. Hodges

would not now oppose the third reading of the bill, but he hoped that the country would no longer be saddled with the expense of Poor Law Commissioners, which could not now be necessary.

Mr. Buck

thought it was most injurious to the principle which the Government sought to establish, to have the settlement of this question delayed from time to time. He hoped that Government would bring in a bill for the purpose of settling it early in the next session.

Mr. W. Williams

contended, that nothing had yet been shown to prove that the Poor Law Commissioners ought to be continued. There was, he maintained, no necessity for this bill now, for the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) had promised to introduce a bill on the subject early in the next session.

Mr. Ward

did not think that the present was the proper period for discussing the merits of the bill; but, without intending to go into those details, he must observe that the Poor Laws had effected a very considerable saving to the country.

Mr. Darby

would not oppose the third reading; but though he wished much that the question were settled, he was rather glad than otherwise that the bill which the noble Lord had introduced this Session, and subsequently withdrawn, had not come into a law, as it would have made things infinitely worse than they were before.

Mr. Wakley

would vote against the third reading, for he would oppose the continuance of the Poor Law Commissioners even for a day. He was glad that the noble Lord's bill had been withdrawn, for he admitted that it would have effected no mitigation of the sufferings of the poor.

Sir C. Douglas

would also support the amendment, because he was anxious to get rid of the Poor Law Commissioners.

Colonel Sibthorp

denied that the New Poor Law had been productive of any good. He had ever protested against the bill as most injurious, oppressive, and degrading to the poor man and the country. He had daily instances before him on his own property of the bad effects of this law. He had heard of a pledge on the part of the Government that a bill should be introduced next session to settle this question; but he owned that he had no respect for such pledges, or those who made them. He would not trust any one of them with a 5l. note of the public money. He had no confidence in the present Government, for a more inactive, more weak, more ignorant set of men than the present Ministers, he never knew. He earnestly hoped that the country would soon be rid of that most useless body.

Mr. F. Maule

said, that the opinions of the hon. and gallant Member had not much influence in the House, and fortunately were not calculated to do much harm out of it. The only question they had now to consider was, whether they would renew the bill for one year, to prevent things being thrown into confusion, until time should be afforded for considering the question fully early in the next Session.

Sir F. Burdett

said, he agreed entirely in the sentiments which had been expressed by the hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln, as to the enormous powers which were given to the Poor-law Commissioners. He thought the present machinery of the Poor-law system was not necessary for the purpose, and that when the expense was taken into consideration, it would be found that it had not answered in that respect. It had, too, created an ill feeling that had never before existed in England between the labouring classes and their employers, between the rich and the poor; that was one evil arising from it which ought to be remedied. When it was considered that generally the poor man wanted only temporary relief, it was hard to throw him into such a situation that he must either starve or go into the workhouse. He regretted that this bill should be passed at this period of the Session, when it seemed highly dangerous to reject it altogether, but he must say, he thought it was not giving fair play to the public. The experiment had been tried now for a long time, and he hoped that early in the next Session the noble Lord would make some material alteration, and take away from the Poor-laws those oppressive clauses which put an end to all good feelings, and to all possibility of cultivating them by gentlemen in the country with respect to their poor neighbours.

Mr. W. Attwood

said, that when the noble Lord objected, on a former occasion, to postpone the third reading of this bill, he appeared to congratulate himself on the almost unanimous concurrence of the House on this subject. The present discussion would show the noble Lord that the opinions of a great number of hon. Members were not so favourable to the Poor-law Amendment Act as he supposed, and if the prolongation of the Act had been proposed at an earlier period of the Session, he had great doubts whether the House would have sanctioned the continuance of the Act in its present state. The arguments of his hon. Friend, the Member for Macclesfield appeared to him to be perfectly fair and just; because, when the powers of the commissioners were about to expire, did the noble Lord come down with a full and complete measure to introduce into the Poor-law Act those important alterations, which, he believed it was acknowledged on all sides, were imperatively required? When the noble Lord submitted to this House a measure in a former Session for prolonging the Poor-law Act, it was unaccompanied by those alterations which he thought from the feelings expressed in this House, he was justified in saying were really necessary; nor was the measure brought forward at a time when the House had a fair opportunity of discussing it. The House, however, consented to prolong the powers of the commissioners for one year, but then it was only with the express understanding that early in this Session a measure would be brought forward comprising the necessary alterations. In 1839 the noble Lord could not say he was not prepared with the information that was requisite for bringing forward such a measure, because he bad had before him for some time the report of the committee that was appointed to consider this subject. And he must remind the House, that that committee was appointed on the nomination of the noble Lord himself, to satisfy the people that all the complaints they had made should be enquired into and redressed. And yet from the moment the report was laid on the table in 1838 to the present time, not a single step had been taken to carry into effect one of the recommendations of that committee. The noble. Lord might say, perhaps, that many of those recommendations were such as he could not propose in a bill for prolonging the powers of the commissioners; but then there were others which required no act to carry them into effect, but only the simple interposition of the noble Lord in requesting the commissioners to exercise the powers vested in them in the way expressed by this House. This was the real question before the House. They were not opposing this bill from hatred of the Poor-law Act, but because they considered the Poor-law Commissioners had placed themselves in direct opposition to the House of Commons by their delay and refusal to adopt the recommendations which were expressed in the report of a committee appointed by the House. He thought, then, that those with whom he acted on this occasion were perfectly justified in calling on the noble Lord to say whether those practical alterations were to be carried into effect by the commissioners, if they consented to the prolongation of their powers. The House were not to say they abandoned their superintendence of the proceedings of the commissioners; but he would remind them, that the recommendations of the committee were of a very important nature and yet the resolutions of the commissioners were in many parts directly opposed to the report of the committee. The question the House had now to decide was this—whether they were prepared to support the report of their own committee, or the resolutions of the commissioners in opposition to it. If they supported the commissioners, then he maintained that practically they gave up altogether all control and interference on the part of this House; for if they showed the commissioners that notwithstanding the report of a committee they were to go on exercising their powers without paying attention to such recommendations, they could not expect in future they would pay more attention to the interference of this House by means of a committee than they had done in time past. If, indeed, the report of the committee were to be considered fruitless in every respect, then he thought that he and his hon. Friends were fully justified in taking their present course, and that they were doing nothing that was unparliamentary in opposing entirely the renewal of the powers of the commissioners, for the only ground for these powers being renewed was this—that they were intrusted to the commissioners to be exercised under the supervision of this House, and yet it was now shown that no interference on the part of this House would be recognized by the commissioners.

Lord J. Russell

said, that with regard to the observations of the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, they seemed to show that he had given much valuable time and attention to the history of the Poor-law Amendment Act, and the proceedings connected with it, in the various Sessions of Parliament. Now, the hon. Member for Macclesfield, in speaking of the history of the Poor-law Amendment Act, said it was only a temporary act, and the powers of the commissioners were only temporary. But the intention of those who introduced the measure was, that the commissioners were to be a permanent body; and it was only because the experiment was new, and might lead to very important consequences, that five years were taken as the time for the duration of the power of the commissioners, so that Parliament might again have the opportunity of considering the subject. The bon. Member for Greenwich had asked why he had not proposed to follow the recommendations of the committee. The fact was, that most of them were recommendations as to the mode of administering the law by the commissioners, and had been sedulously attended to by those gentlemen, and the greater part of them practically carried out. With regard especially to the most important part—that which related to medical relief—the commissioners had given the greatest attention to the subject, and had deavoured to carry into effect the recommendations of the committee. But there were other recommendations of the committee which required the sanction of that House—such as the extension of the powers of the commissioners to certain places that were not under their operation at present; and if he had proposed any measure for that purpose, great opposition would have been made to it, and many nights would have been consumed in committee before it would have been allowed to pass through the House. It was, then, for him to consider whether there were not more important subjects for him to bring forward, and which he must have time to get through this session. But he wished to have carried on the Poor Law Amendment Bill this Session: and what was the objection? The objection made to his doing so was, that he had not proposed to amend the Act of Registration of Electors, and that that was too important a subject to be delayed. Unless, therefore, the House were willing to sit till October or November, the present course was forced upon him of proposing merely a bill for the continuance of the Poor Law Commission. He would introduce a bill for the amendment of the Poor Law in the beginning of the next Session; and having been so frequently attacked for not introducing bills with respect to registration in the present Session, he should think it necessary to introduce measures connected with that subject also in the ensuing Session. But he must say, that it was not quite fair in the first place to attack him for not bringing in certain bills, and, in the next place, when those bills were introduced, to attack him for not having brought in other bills.

Mr. Muntz

could not agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln that the entire blame for the introduction of this measure rested with the Ministers. Both the parties in that House were equally liable to blame on the subject. He protested against the bill altogether, because he thought it inflicted a serious evil on the working classes, and believed its operation in manufacturing towns was even more severely felt than in agricultural districts. He could not see the justice of refusing a little out-door relief to an honest but poor man who really stood in need of it.

The House divided on the original question:—Ayes 74; Noes 16: Majority 58.

List of the AYES.
Adam, Admiral Baines, E.
Ainsworth, P. Bannerman, A.
Alston, R. Baring, rt. hn. F. T.
Archbold, R. Barrington, Viscount
Bernal, R. Palmerston, Viscount
Bridgeman, H. Parnell, rt. hn. Sir H.
Buck, L. W. Philips, M.
Buller, E. Pigot, D. R.
Buller, Sir J. Y. Protheroe, E.
Byng, G. Pryme, G.
Chichester, Sir B. Pusey, P.
Childers, J. W. Rawdon, Col. J. D.
Cowper, hon. W. F. Rice, E. R.
Darby, G. Roche, W.
Elliot, hon. J. E. Russell, Lord J.
Euston, Earl of Russell, Lord C.
Evans, G. Salwey, Colonel
Ewart, W. Sanford, E. A.
Ferguson, Sir R. A. Scrope, G. P.
Finch, F. Seymour, Lord
Gladstone, W. E. Sheil, right hon. R. L.
Gordon, R. Slaney, R. A.
Grey, rt. hon. Sir C. Smith, R. V.
Grey, rt. hon. Sir G. Style, Sir C.
Hawes, B. Thornely, T.
Hobhouse, T. B. Townley, R. G.
Hodges, T. L. Troubridge, Sir E. T.
Hodgson, R. Tuffnell, H.
Horsman, E. Vigors, N. A,
Howard, hn. E. G. G. Vivian, Major C.
Ingham, R. Vivian, rt. hn. Sir R. H.
Inglis, Sir R. H. Ward, H. G.
Knight, H. G. Wyse, T.
Langdale, hon. C. Yates, J. A.
Morpeth, Viscount Young, J.
Morrison, J.
Muskett, G. A. TELLERS.
Norreys, Sir D. J. Maule, hon. F.
Paget, F. Parker, J.
List of the NOES.
Attwood, M. Irton, S.
Bainbridge, E. T. Johnson, General
Brotherton, J. Muntz, G. F.
Collins, W. Parker, R. T.
Douglas, Sir C. E. Sibthorp, Colonel
Duncombe, T. Williams, W.
Fielden, J.
Gore, O. J. R. TELLERS.
Grant, Sir A. C. Attwood, W.
Hindley, C. Grimsditch, T.

Bill read a third time and passed.

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