HC Deb 25 July 1842 vol 65 cc605-12
Mr. S. Crawford

said, he was very unwilling to interpose any obstacle to going into supply, but he felt called upon to take the course which he now did in consequence of the conduct of the Government. He admitted, that the right hon. Baronet opposite had always treated him with courtesy, but he could not accept of any courtesy, at the expense of the cause which he advocated. The right hon. Baronet, on a late occasion said, with reference to the English Poor-law, that not more than one-fifth of the poor had been relieved inside the workhouse; and it had been admitted, that a law to give relief only in the workhouses was unjust and oppressive to the poor. He begged to remind the House that Ireland was under the operation of such a Poor-law, and he wished to know why some relaxation of the law had not been made in Ireland. The right hon. Baronet admitted, that the commissioners in England had made some discretionary power in administering relief; but in Ireland the commissioners could give no other relief than relief in the workhouse. On a former occasion he had made various statements with regard to the distress of the poor, and he apprehended Government would not deny that great distress existed in Ireland. Since that time he had found a confirmation of the distress in a document signed by the Rev. Mr. Hughes, of Clare-Morris, describing the distress that existed in his district. It appeared from this document, that in that district there were nearly 500 families in a state of destitution, subsisting chiefly on the charity of their neighbours. In other parts the poor were described as subsisting on green weeds and inferior flour, the consequence of which was that dysentery prevailed among them to a lamentable extent. He had been informed that neither the distress of 1831, nor that of 1835, was at all to be compared with that which at present existed. The distress in Belfast was described to him as very great, and likely to increase. In Belfast the distress was confined chiefly to the working classes and manufactures, but in other parts in Ireland great distress also existed among the agricultural population. It was said that the Corn-law bad been beneficial to Ireland; but how could this be the case, when they saw that such distress prevailed in the agricultural parishes? In his opinion the Corn-law had been productive of great evil in Ireland; it had taught landlords to depend on high prices; while, if there had been no Corn-law, they would not have bad those high prices to depend on, but would have taken some other means to raise the value of their land. The effect of the Corn-laws in Ireland was to produce the greatest possible stagnation in its manufactures; and his firmest conviction was, that nothing could tend so much to the promotion of those as the abolition of those laws. He attributed much of the evil existing in Ireland to the maladministration of the Poor-laws; but that evil was greatly aggravated by the bad management of the landlords. The bad arrangement of the law between landlord and tenant had a most injurious effect, and still more had the dealings of the landlords as individuals. One of the effects of the establishment of the Poor-laws in Ireland had been to check the benevolence of voluntary associations. The commissioners of the Poor-laws seemed to set their faces against the voluntary system. There was another evil connected with those laws—the transmission of Irish paupers from England to Ireland. Men who had been ten or twenty years in England, when removed to Ireland, had no place of settlement. They were removed there and then left to starve, or else they were sent back again to England, and after that sent to and fro, without any fixed locality. The powers of the commissioners ought to be such as to place these persons in a better situation. He wished to impress upon the House the consideration what was to be done with these poor persons, placed as they were under the dreadful circumstances he had stated. The Irish Poor-law was an experiment, and it had been sufficiently proved not to have succeeded. His wish was to prevail on the Government to re-consider that law. He was willing to bear any additional tax which might be required to effect the object he sought to obtain, and he hoped there would be no objection to the motion he had to propose. The hon. Member concluded by moving, as an amendment, a resolution,— That the distressed state of Ireland requires the immediate attention of the House and of her Majesty's Government, with a view to devise and adopt such measures as may be advisable under the present circumstances of the extreme destitution of the working classes in that country.

Mr. Fielden

seconded the motion.

Lord Eliot

gave the fullest credit to the hon. Member for Rochdale for the object which he was desirous to attain by the amendment he had proposed, and it would be a mark of disrespect if he did not offer a few observations in reply. At the same time he trusted the hon. Member would believe that the Irish Government were equally anxious with himself to attend to that which the hon. Member had made the subject of his observations. It would, undoubtedly, be a very easy and cheap mode of meeting the difficulties the hon. Gentleman had pointed out by applying the public resources in aid of the distresses of the country; but while the Government were bound to aid all public works, they were at the same time equally bound not to go too far. It was incumbent on them not to check charity and private benevolence. The Irish Government had endeavoured to do what the exigency of the case required. Allusion had been made by the hon. Member to the Corn-laws. It was far from his intention to go into any details upon that subject, but since he had resided in Ireland, he had made inquiries of persons of authority, who well knew the situation of Ireland, and the reports he had received were not such as to inspire anything like despondency. On the contrary, he believed there was a general improvement in the condition of the people. He did not think that the distress which existed was anything more than that partial distress which had almost every year prevailed. So long as the population depended almost entirely upon potatoes for existence, he was afraid that periods of distress could not be avoided. He believed that in a few years the people of Ireland would not depend upon potatoes for subsistence. Meal was now becoming a part of their food. He had received a letter from Mr. Griffiths, who had been for ten years employed as a valuator in Ireland, and he said, in answer to questions which had been put to him, that he considered the people were gradually and steadily progressing in civilization and comforts, and that in the south and southwestern districts of Ireland the system of drainage of the lands, and the improved method of tillage, held out a prospect of considerable benefit for the future. The communications of the surveyor of Ireland authenticated this anticipated result. These accounts were supported by men of respectability, and of all political opinions. He was, therefore, not speaking without authority when he stated that the condition of the people in Ireland was gradually improving. With regard to the Poor-law, the hon. Gentleman seemed to think that the people of Ireland had been deprived of the advantages of voluntary benevolence by this law. He would merely observe, that no rights and privileges of the people had been at all curtailed. It would be rash to say that relief should be given to every poor man in Ireland, but the regulation was, that assistance and relief should be given to the aged, the infirm, and the impotent. That had been practically the case. He hoped that the power of giving out-door relief in Ireland would never be conceded by Parliament; such a change would be attended with the most dangerous consequences; in that case, many of the evils which had prevailed, and were still prevalent in England, would be introduced into Ireland. In conclusion, he begged to add his testimony to that of the hon. Member, who had only paid a just tribute to the patience and forbearance of the people of Ireland under their privations.

Major Bryan

was understood to say, that in the district with which he was particularly connected (Kilkenny) he never knew the distress to be more extensive than at present.

Lord Eliot

did not deny, that the distress was severe in some particular localities, but he believed it had arisen from the failure of the potato crop.

Mr. F. French

said, the Poor-law had been forced on Ireland by an English majority, arid he was glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman had given notice of his intention to bring the subject fully before the House in the course of the next Session of Parliament. He thought it strange that the administration of the Poor-law in Ireland should be continued in the hands of a person who estimated the expense of its working at 300,000l., while the cost in reality had been 1,300,000l.

Mr. O'Connell

did not think any good object could be attained by continuing the present discussion. He felt greatly obliged to his hon. Friend for the patriotism and humanity which he had evinced on the present occasion, and he would ask, what could possibly result from the success of his motion? At this late period of the Session, the House could do little but express its sympathy and sorrow for the situation of Ireland. He considered the Poor-law inapplicable to the situation of that country; but if they were to have a Poor-law, he should certainly prefer out-door relief to its being confined merely to a state of imprisonment in the House. The noble Lord had afforded him some consolation by his prophecy of future amelioration, and of the improvements gradually taking place in Ireland. This, however, was neither the first nor the tenth time when such prophecies had been made. The committee of 1830 held out a most splendid prospect of the improve- ments in agriculture—they gave a complete view of a land of promise, of a terrestrial paradise, and yet two years afterwards, when the people of Ireland were enumerated and classified, it appeared there were not less than 2,300,000 paupers returned. He contended that the evils of Ireland were to be traced to bad Government. It had been said that the result would have been different if the 43rd of Elizabeth had been extended to Ireland. But how was that Queen employed? According to Spenser she was employed in destroying, year after year, the harvests of Ireland—her troops went from county to county, as the harvest was coming on, for the purpose of totally annihilating it, until by the force of sheer famine the subjugation of Ireland was complete. To imagine a poor law applied to Ireland in the reign of Elizabeth, would be a stretch of imagination far beyond that of a poet. The noble Lord seemed to imagine that the present distress was not so great as that which formerly existed. He begged to assure the noble Lord that he was completely mistaken on that point. The hon and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kilkenny county, as a resident landlord, was perfectly acquainted with the state of the Irish poor. Few landlords could have greater claims on their gratitude, and he said that he had never known the distress so terrific as at present. At some periods there had certainly been less provisions; but the distress now arose from the total want of employment, and the consequent want of wages. He was bound to bear testimony to the conduct of the present Irish Government on this occasion. They had evinced the greatest promptness and readiness to relieve the distress which existed; and he mentioned this without the slightest hesitation or reluctance. Some of the features of the present Poor-law were of terrific import. There was scarcely an able-bodied man in any of the poorhouses in Ireland. There was not one in the house in Cork or Dublin. But what was taking place? Formerly young men remained at home rather than emigrate to places where they could obtain greater wages, in order that they might support their mother or unmarried sisters. Now, however, a man's family could not go into the workhouse unless he accompanied them. The consequence was, that many men absconded, leaving misery accumulating in the poor-houses without the possi- bility of redress. There was something essentially wrong in the state of that country, which the Poor-laws would not remedy; and he ventured to say that, when the rate came to be levied, it would be met by a more determined and strenuous resistance than any regulation that had ever been enforced in that country. He thought his hon. Friend had attained his object in calling the attention of the House to this subject, and he respectfully advised him to withdraw his motion.

Mr. S. Crawford

would not divide the House.

Amendment by leave withdrawn.

On the question being again put,

Mr. Hume

said, that since the House had last met there had been a meeting of some thousands of his constituents, who had asked him to do what he could to obtain relief for their distresses. He had endeavoured to prevail on the Government to apply a proper remedy, and had failed. He had not been able to obtain that which would afford relief, viz., a free-trade in corn. He hoped that in the recess Government would endeavour to guard against the evils which were likely to arise In Scotland, in some parishes there were rates for the relief of the poor, and in others there were none. That part of the country deserved immediate attention. The letters which he had received expressed a degree of alarm and general gloom at the prospect that a large body of that hitherto industrious population would be utterly unemployed.