HC Deb 22 March 1842 vol 61 cc1084-92
Captain Pechell,

who had given notice of a motion for certain returns relative to unions incorporated under Gilbert's Act, said, he had a petition to present from the guardians of the poor in the city of Chichester, signed by twenty-two of their body, in favour of their local act, and deprecating any interference of the Poor-law Commissioners to abrogate the provisions of that statute. The petitioners stated, that they understood the Government were about to introduce in their New Poor-law Bill, provisions that would interfere with their jurisdiction. The hon. and gallant Gentleman went on to say, that when on a former evening the subject to which this petition referred, was under discussion, from the silence of the right hon. Baronet, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, he was induced now to move for certain returns relative to the unions incorporated under Gilbert's Act, and also under local acts, because undoubtedly the right hon. Baronet, at the head of the Government, in his speech on the same evening, did imply, that the unions which still existed under the Gilbert Act would form a topic of discussion. The right hon. Baronet urged, that as those unions were only twelve in number, it was competent to the House to consider whether they should remain or not. The petitioners from the city of Chichester had already taken the alarm as to the intentions of Government, which he imagined were decidedly in favour of repealing the 22nd of George 3rd, relating to the management of the poor. For, no doubt, if the right hon. Baronet, at the head of the Government, had had any intelligence of a pleasing description to communicate as to the difference there was between the Poor-law Bill of this Session and the present law, he would have communicated that intention to the public before now, and in the absence of any such statement of the intention of the Government, he was entitled to assume that it was the determination of the Government to repeal those statutes under which the poor of so many parishes had been governed to the satisfaction of the rate-payers, as well as to those who received relief; and he held himself to be entitled to assume, from the same cause, that the right hon. Baronet meant to pursue the same course with regard to local acts generally. If the Gilbert Act was touched, the time would not be very far distant when the local acts would be touched also—they would attack the weak first, beginning with those unfortunate parishes that had not the weight in the House which the parishes governed under local acts had, But the right hon. Baronet, the Secretary for the Home Department, very needlessly the other evening had endeavoured to create some amusement by adverting to the management of the poor-rates in the town of Brighton. He had then endeavoured to explain, as far as the time would allow, some of the charges which the right hon. Baronet had made against the guardians of the poor in that town. He had been prevented, by the nature of the discussion, from doing that satisfactorily, and he would take the present opportunity to make a few remarks. In the first place, he entirely agreed with the right hon. Baronet, that the discussions on this subject should not be allowed to assume a party character, and the right hon. Baronet, in the charges he had made, had not directed his complaints particularly against either Tory or Liberal overseers. It happened, however, that the complaint of the right hon. Baronet applied to Tory over seers, and he was as willing to defend them, as if they had been of the contrary politics. In reply to his observations as to the manner in which the expenses of the management of the poor of Brighton, had been reduced during the last five years, the right hon. Baronet undertook to say, that certain expenses had occurred which would not have been tolerated by the Poor-law Commissioners; and he had instanced certain dinners and luncheons given at Brighton; and he said also, that a charge of 24l. had been made for a parish officer coming to London on the birth of the Princess Royal. The right hon. Baronet, the other evening, in answering the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Northampton, had laid it down that hon. Members should be careful of their facts before making any statement. But the right hon. Baronet had not himself been very careful as regarded his charges with reference to the rose-water and eau de Cologne, and other expenses, which he said had been improperly paid by the overseers. Now, the accounts of 1837 were brought before the vestry, and a committee was appointed to investigate them; therefore, it appeared, that the Poor-law Commissioners were not wanted. The committee investigated the matter, the objectionable items were disallowed, and the Tory gormandizers were thrown upon their own resources. So that instead of what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet being any argument against the management of the parochial system of Brighton, it actually went the other way, and proved the excellence of the system of control. As soon as the abuses were detected, town meetings were held, and vestry meetings, and before there had been two meetings, the accounts were repudiated, and the abuses put an end to. Thus the local acts gave every power, and the Poor-law Commissioners were not required. Now, with regard to the Court dress, it appeared, that in 1840, an address was unanimously voted to her Majesty, not on the birth of the Princess Royal, as the right hon. Baronet had erroneously stated but on the occasion of her escape from the attempt of Oxford upon her life. That address was agreed to at a town meeting, and was expressive of the abhorrence of the meeting of that attempt. It was further ordered:— That the high-constable do present the same, and charge his expenses in the accounts. Those expenses were so charged, and the Court dress was one of the items. The accounts were laid before a meeting, pursuant to the act of George 3rd, and it was resolved, that they should be paid. After payment, they went before another vestry, and they were allowed. Thus they were twice considered and agreed to. But the vote of a vestry could not legalize that which was in itself illegal. The right hon. Baronet would concede that this expenditure, if it was an abuse, was at least not an abuse which the inhabitants were unable of themselves to correct if they pleased, and, further, that it was by no means an abuse of so gross a kind as was said to exist in different unions under the new law. It was not, for instance, such an abuse as the flogging at Hoo—it was not such an abuse as was said to exist at Eastbourne or at Sevenoaks; and he must say, that he thought it was going rather to an extreme to call the attention of the House to the matter in such a manner as to imply that, because one such abuse had occurred, therefore the affairs of all the Gilbert and local unions must, necessarily, be mismanaged. But to return to the subject of his motion. The papers he asked for would show the number of the unions existing under the Gilbert Act and the different local acts. The right hon. Baronet had the other night repudiated the accuracy of the figures he had quoted. Now, they had been chiefly taken from a return moved for by the noble Lord the Member for Monmouthshire, which certainly gave an accurate account of the number of persons living in parishes comprised in unions regulated by local acts. He believed that in the twelve Gilbert unions there were 288 parishes, exclusive of five parishes forming unions of themselves. The exact population of all these unions he had not been able to obtain, but he believed that in the two unions which existed in the county of Sussex there were not less than 20,000 in- habitants. The right hon. Baronet should recollect that these 20,000 persons had petitioned for the continuance of the system through their guardians and Parliamentary representatives, and that there had also been a vast number of petitions deprecating interference with the Gilbert unions from Derby, York, and other counties. Let them then see in one short and comprehensive table what was the number of persons with whose existing arrangements an alteration of this satisfactory law would interfere. The right hon. Baronet had charged him with an artifice in mixing up the populations of the local and Gilbert unions, but he should rather say that that was an artifice which sought to conceal the fact that, exclusive of the Gilbert unions, there were no less than 2,500,000 persons not at present under the control of commissioners whose interests the projected alterations would also affect. But, still more than all this, he thought some cause should be shown for annihilating these unions, for condemning them by wholesale without inquiry. He thought the House and the nation ought to be informed why the unions were to be dissolved, and it was for this reason that he should feel it his duty to raise his voice on every possible occasion against the abrogation of the system. It was said that these unions were working on a bad principle, and the right hon. Baronet opposite had said that the number of those which remained was quite insignificant. Now, he would be glad to be informed how many of the Gilbert and local unions had been tricked, as it were, into amalgamation with the general system. He should like to ask how many bargains had been made, how many were promised retrenchment in their expenditure and protection, as it was called, by the commissioners? Some curious tales might doubtless be related on this subject. Let them take the case of some of the Sussex unions. Mr. Hawley, a gentleman for whom he had every respect, came down into Sussex on a sort of marooning expedition among the Gilbert unions, and had held long confabulations with the guardians, in the course of which he had persuaded several to dissolve, and place themselves, as they afterwards found to their cost, under the orders of the commissioners. Mr. Hawley, in his published report, had made a reference to these unions, in which he said that the result of them was to induce a pertinacious adherence to the mistaken principles on which they were founded—an adherence which baffled every attempt to bring about a change, and which induced mistaken comparisons among the inmates of other workhouses. But Mr. Stephens, another commissioner, in speaking of the Sussex Poor-law unions, had said, that there was no grumbling among the inmates, and that they went to their work in a morning as happy as birds. Where, then, let him ask, were the injurious comparisons? If the paupers in the Poor-law unions went to their work as happy as birds, what danger was to be apprehended from the contamination of neighbouring Gilbert unions? What injurious comparisons could there be if all were so happy, and if they warbled away every morning so musically and with so much internal satisfaction? But he could tell the House, that the comparison which was attended with so little bad effect on the one side, was by no means approved on the other. The inmates of the Gilbert unions, had tried the Poor-law diet, and they found the comparison anything but pleasant or advantageous. They had been sick of it in a fortnight, and were glad enough to be relieved from it. But the Poor-law Commissioners had not stickled at slight misrepresentations. They had endeavoured to make the public believe that the guardians of the Gilbert unions had not the power of sending able-bodied men to their workhouses. Now this was an endeavour to excite the public to a comparison invidious to the Gilbert unions. He said such conduct was mischievous, and he would add, that its evil results must lie, not with the Gilbert guardians, but with those parties who, in their anxiety to bring the whole country under their authority, had recourse to such improper manœuvres. But in order to show a cause for bringing these unions under the powers of the Commissioners, they ought distinctly to prove bad management. Now, where had bad management been shown? The right hon. Baronet had said that there was bad management in sending up the dresses from Brighton, but as he said before, that single act did not prove any bad management in the Gilbert unions generally. Then what inducement did they hold out to the guardians to renounce the duties they had undertaken? Did they hold out such management as that of the Eastbourne Union? He held in his hand an able pamphlet emanating from a Sussex gentleman, who had taken an active part against the Poor-law, and who was now a candidate for the represent- tation of Brighton, in which the very improper conduct of the Eastbourne guardians was fully illustrated. There was one case mentioned of a man who had been set to the occupation of grinding bones, and upon whom that description of labour operated so injuriously that the author declared his belief that the man's health would have been ruined had, he staid there any longer. Such narratives with respect to the Eastbourne Union certainly were not calculated to reconcile the people at the other end of the country to the system the right hon. Baronet was so anxious to extend. Surely it would not prove advantageous to persons placed in the Gilbert unions, and other unions governed under local acts, to be placed in the circumstances in which William Smith and his wife were described to have been placed. The poor man's health, it appeared, suffered severely from working in the bone-house, to the extent of even placing his life in jeopardy, and yet the governor of the workhouse threatened that if he did not work in the bone house, he should be strictly watched and closely followed up. Mr. Brooker, in his pamphlet, did not hesitate to charge the guardians with being accessory to moral murder, and added, that if brought to the test, he would impeach them on that ground. It would, he repeated, be no benefit to the inmates of Gilbert unions and others governed by local acts, to be placed under the control of those who rendered themselves liable to the charge of being accessory to moral murder. The statement was made by Mr. Brooker, who was ready to forward his pamphlet to any gentleman who desired it, and if the charge was unfounded, let it be contradicted. He disliked entering into minute details, but when these unions were told that they must give up their system of government for the purpose of uniformity, it was necessary to show the mischief which would follow. The right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth, had observed the other night on the absence from that (the Opposition) side of the House of those Members of the late Ministry who advocated the New Poor-law when the question was under consideration. The right hon. Member for Kent was not in the House at the time, though he was happy to see him there now. That right hon. Gentleman had on a former occasion ex pressed his hope that the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government would not, when the question of the Poor-Jaw came on for revision, think of giving additional power to the Poor-law Commission; but, on the contrary, rather retrench that power, and confer upon the guardians a discretionary power of affording out-door relief. To this, however, the right hon. Member for Tamworth was decidedly opposed, so also was the noble Lord, the Member for Stroud, as well as the noble Viscount, the Member for Sunderland. As the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Kent, had voted for the postponement of the clause relative to the Assistant-com missioners, it was to be hoped that he would render his assistance now in endeavouring to ameliorate the system by affording out-door relief to able-bodied men, and granting beer to those who were shut up in the workhouses. He hoped there would be no objection to granting the returns for which he had moved, as they were necessary to render the question clear and intelligible. When the subject came before the House again, he presumed they would be told of the necessity which existed for uniformity in the system. There were, however, 137 unions, in which it was not unusual to grant out-door relief to able-bodied paupers. Of these unions he found that, there were several in Sunderland. Was it not a farce, then, to talk of uniformity? A system of uniformity never had been acted upon, and never could be acted upon, and it was, therefore, not right to say, that the existence of the Gilbert and other unions under local acts stood in the way of uniformity. He would advise the right hon. Baronet to let those who petitioned to remain under the government of their own local acts alone. If he interfered with the unions thus governed, he would by no means find himself on a bed of roses. The right hon. Baronet should remember that many of those around him, by whose votes he was supported, had pledged themselves to their constituents on the hustings to try and relax the stringent provisions of the law, and he was bound to say that, with one or two exceptions, these pledges had been redeemed. He did not mean to say that downright pledges had been given, but they had expressed themselves hostile to those severe provisions of the law which separate man and wife, as well as to others almost equally stringent. To him it appeared that very forcible reasons should be adduced, and a good cause made out, before any interference was had with those unions governed under local acts which were now well satisfied with their own systems. The hon. and gallant Gentleman concluded by moving for returns of each parish and township in England and Wales in which the poor were managed under the provisions of the act 22nd George 3rd, c. 33, commonly called Gilbert's Act, distinguishing whether incorporated in any union or governed separately, and stating the population of each parish and town ship, and of each union respectively, ac cording to the last census. Also returns of each parish and township subject to the provisions of any local act for the management of the poor, with the amount of population according to the last census.

Sir J. Graham

said, that there was no objection to granting the returns, but for the purpose of vindicating their accuracy the returns of 1831 should be added to them.

Mr. Darby

said, he had seen the pamphlet referred to by the hon. Member for Brighton, and a more gross libel was never published.

Captain Pechell

considered the writer of the pamphlet to be a highly respectable gentleman, and read it as a document furnished by that person, and not a matter coming within his own knowledge. He would not have used the pamphlet had it not been accompanied by the letter.

Mr. Darby

said, that before using such a document, the hon. Member for Brighton should have made some inquiries into its truth.

Motion agreed to.