HC Deb 17 June 1842 vol 64 cc92-4
Mr. Edward Ellice

, jun. rose, according to a notice he had given to the right hon. Baronet at the head of her Majesty's Government, for the purpose of putting a question involving a subject of very grave importance to the people of Scotland. It would be in the recollection of the right hon. Baronet, that, towards the close of the last Parliament, in consequence of representations made to that House, a committee had been appointed to inquire into the state of the Highland poor, with a view of relieving their distress by means of emigration. He had been one of the members of that committee, and, in conjunction with others of its members, had endeavoured to extend its inquiries beyond the actual state of destitution, and the means of relief likely to be afforded by emigration carried on at the public expense. He had thought it to be necessary to inquire into the means arising from other sources that had been previously employed for relieving the poor, and into those which could be depended upon thereafter for protecting that part of the population which (supposing emigration to take place) would be left behind, from want and starvation, in the event of a continuance of that extreme destitution that had been proved before the committee to exist. The majority of the committee had, however, determined to restrict their inquiries to the subject of emigration, and his endeavours to extend the inquiry had been defeated. There was no reason to suppose that the distress in the Highlands had diminished since that period. The right hon. Baronet had a fearful instance, in the case of Paisley, how greatly it had increased in the Lowlands. No further inquiry had been made, no legislative measures bad been taken to check the evil, and in consequence of its having been represented to him, that, un- less some immediate steps were taken by the Legislature to prevent it, the miseries of famine, which had prevailed from time to time in the more remote though populous districts of the Highlands, were likely to be extended to the Lowlands, where the consequences would be fatal to the health and tranquillity of the people. He now rose to put the question of which he had given notice. He would ask the right hon. Baronet, whether the attention of Government had been directed to the evidence taken before the committee appointed last year to inquire into the state of the Highland poor, and to the proceedings of that committee? Whether, taking into consideration the actual destitution in many parts, the increasing distress generally throughout Scotland, and the utter insufficiency of the existing law for the purpose of affording any general relief—was it the intention of her Majesty's Government to recommend any immediate measures to Parliament, or to institute any general inquiry, with a view of extending the system of compulsory relief to the poor, or of adopting measures for the improvement of the law in Scotland, and the existing administration of it, on that important subject?

Sir R. Peel

said, that, as to the first question, he could only say that he was generally aware of the proceedings which had taken place before the committee which inquired into the state of distress in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. He could also state that the Government had directed its attention to the present state of the law, and its practical operation, in reference to the relief of the poor in Scotland, more especially in the large towns and manufacturing districts; but Government did not intend to propose in the course of the present Session of Parliament any alteration of the law in that respect. To any proposition to alter the law he thought there would be a serious objection, as full inquiry ought to precede any legislation on a subject of such immense importance. At the same time, he had no hesitation in stating that his own opinion as to the law for relief of the poor in Scotland, particularly in large towns, to which part of the subject he had more particularly directed his attention, was, that it was a question well worthy the most serious consideration; but he must repeat that the most mature inquiry and deliberation must precede any legislation in the matter. What mode of inquiry Government would adopt he could not then say, but he could say, that Ministers would direct their attention fully to the subject, more particularly in reference to the large towns and manufacturing districts.