HC Deb 03 February 1843 vol 66 cc178-89

Mr. E. Ellice moved an address for a copy of the warrant given to the commission appointed to inquire into the Scotch Poor-law system. He regretted that a system so admittedly defective should be unattended to for so long a time. The evils were admitted in the last Session, and since that time the distress had increased considerably in the west part of Scotland, and no steps had been taken to remedy it, nor had any efforts been made to procure the returns ordered by the House respecting the relief which had been afforded. Seven months ago a promise to inquire had been made, but the commission to inquire was only appointed in January last. It consisted of the following persons:—Lord Melville, Lord Bellhaven, Mr. H. Home Drummond, Mr. Campbell, of Craigie, Mr. Twisleton, Dr. Macfarlan, and the Rev. James Robertson. He, for his own part, had no belief in the efficacy of the commission, or in any good that was likely to result from it. The composition of the commission was not calculated to induce a belief in Scotland that a fair or impartial inquiry would be instituted. Four of the seven, a majority of the whole, were selected out of the class which was opposed to any improvement of the present system, and had endeavoured to stifle all inquiry, namely, the Scottish landlords. He would put it to any one who knew the country, whether the Scottish landlords were likely to institute a fair inquiry? He did not mean to make any individual allusion, as there were not four gentlemen of that class more deserving or respectable than those four gentlemen. The fault was in their position, and it would be quite as well to expect an impartial report on the operation of the Corn-laws from the Buckinghamshire Agricultural Association, as to expect that Scotch landlords should report impartially on the present Poor-law system of that country. Of the other three who composed the commission, two were clergymen of the Scotch establishment. It should be remembered that all the legal relief which was afforded in Scotland passed through the hands of the clergy, and could it be supposed that they would consent to forgo a power which they sometimes exercised injuriously? Mr. Twisleton was the only gentleman upon the commission from whom a fair or impartial inquiry could be expected. Those who had framed the commission had gone out of the way to exclude men residing in large towns, and in whom the public would place confidence. He meant those men whose conduct had excited the highest admiration—namely, the Dissenting ministers. He hoped their conduct would stir them to show up the present poorstarvation—he could not call it relief—law in its proper colours, and if the country at large were made fully aware of its enormities, it would not be of long continuance.

Sir R. Peel

was surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman complain of a delay in the appointment of the commission. Those with whom the hon. Gentleman usually acted had been for ten years in power, and yet they had not gone as far as a commission. A right hon. Gentleman who was well acquainted with the affairs of Scotland had been an Under Secretary of State during a portion of that time, and he had made no proposition on the subject. The subject, it appeared, was so difficult a one, that during ten years the preceding Government had not been able to take a single step; and yet the present Government was to be censured because he had proceeded no further than a commission since July last. From what had been said last year upon the subject, especially as regarded the operation of the system in large towns, he (Sir R. Peel) said, that it was absolutely necessary that some inquiry should be set on foot, and the consequence was, that the present commission was appointed, and it was to be regretted that the hon. Member for Wigton, who was so eminently qualified to enter into the inquiry, was prevented by ill-health from acting with the commission. But the hon. Gentleman said, that because there were clergymen and men of landed property upon the commission, the inquiry could not be an impartial one. He felt himself called upon to vindicate the hon. Gentleman's country from the aspersion which the hon. Gentleman himself had thrown upon it. So far from being desirous of retaining the power of relief in their own hands, they were desirous of having it confided to commissioners. Were such men as Lord Melville and the others who composed the commission liable to the charge of partiality? Having now for the first time instituted a commission to inquire into the operation of the Poor-law system in Scotland, what could be more desirable, what could be more useful, than the aid and information of the clergy in following out the investigation? The hon. Gentleman who made the complaint was silent for ten years, and now he taxed those at present in power, and who had commenced an investigation, with the delay of a few months. If the hon. Gentleman would look to the appointment of the commission, he would find, that though the terms were brief, the subject of inquiry was comprehensive.

Mr. F. Maule

complained that the right hon. Baronet in answering the hon. Member for St. Andrew's had thought fit to aim at the late Administration. [No, no.] Why, it was stated, that having been in power for ten years, they had not during that time made any inquiry into the working of the Poor-law system in Scotland. The fact was, the hardships of the present system did not appear so prominently until the last two years. Had the same circumstances occurred sooner, and had the attention of his noble Friend behind him (Lord J. Russell) been called to the subject, that noble Lord would have acted in the same manner as the right hon. Baronet had done, and would have taken the question into his own hands, but he would not have legislated without first instituting a full inquiry. The attention of the House had been called to the subject on the 17th of last June, upon which occasion the right hon. Baronet said that the attention of the Government should be directed to it. A commission might have been sooner appointed, and sufficient information procured in the interim, so as to enable the Government to propose some remedy during the present Session. With respect to the commission which had been appointed, he (Mr. F. Maule) considered that none could be more fairly constituted. No name could inspire more confidence than that of Lord Melville, and no person was better informed upon the subject. Scotland was deeply indebted to him for the Prison Bill, and there was no doubt would be equally indebted for his exertions in the proposed inquiry. It was necessary that the commission should inspire confidence, and though he was sure the one appointed could not fail to do so, still it would increase this confidence—and it was not yet too late to make the attempt—if some individuals from the large towns were appointed on the commission.

Sir R. Peel,

in explanation, said, he had no intention of throwing the slightest blame upon the late Administration. He had himself hesitated long upon the subject, as it was one upon which he did not think it wise or prudent to enter hastily.

Mr. Campbell

complained of the hon. Member for St. Andrew's for stating that the clergy made an injurious use of their power of distributing relief. It was an assertion which he would not allow to pass uncontradicted, as there was no body of men who could more fairly or judiciously manage the relief fund than they had done; and if by the circumstances of the day a great body of those men should be compelled to leave the church of their fathers, it would be too late to find bow much the aristocracy would lose when deprived of the assistance of those whose services were so valuable in administering the funds for the relief of the poor. Did the hon. Member for St. Andrew's remember the distress in the western highlands in 1830?

Mr. Ellice

in explanation said, that he had not intended to imply anything injurious to the clergy of Scotland; he merely meant to say that they did not exactly constitute the body best qualified to distribute relief to the poor.

Mr. Wallace

was convinced the commission would give great satisfaction in Scotland. It ought to have been appointed sooner, but better late than never. He had only one objection to make to it, and that was, that one or two dissenting ministers had not been placed on it. It was not, however, too late to correct the error. The men whose names were already there, were very competent, and would give great satisfaction. He was sorry to be obliged to differ on the subject from his young friend.

Sir James Graham

said, it was a long time before he could make up his mind to grant this commission, and he was, therefore, the less surprised that the late Government should so long have delayed the inquiry. Nothing but a conviction of the great sufferings that had prevailed in the manufacturing districts had induced him to consent to disturb a system which, on the whole, had acted well. He could not, however, conceal from himself the fact that the existing system of Poor-laws in Scotland had been framed for a state of society different from that which now existed there. The system was well calculated for a rural population, but not for the new circumstances that had arisen in that part of the country. Still he felt he was taking great responsibility upon himself in disturbing a state of the law that had so long been established, and while he felt the necessity of inquiry, he still deemed it necessary that the inquiry should be made in the most cautious manner. He (Sir James Graham) had been in communication with a great number of persons in reference to this matter, because to obtain the consent of Gentlemen to act together on a commission of this kind was not the work of a day. When Government had determined on forming a commission, its composition became a matter of negotiation. He had throughout the last autumn communicated with a number of gentlemen in Scotland, and the expediency of the cautious course he had followed in this respect was proved by the great approbation which had been given to the composition of a commission entrusted with such large powers, and which was liable to be viewed in some quarters with jealousy. The expression of approbation implied in what fell from the right hon. Member for Perth had been confirmed by the remarks made by the hon. Member for Greenock, and even the hon. Member for St. Andrew's who had been introduced as a young friend to the Gentleman on the other side by the hon. Member (Mr. Wallace), had only attempted to censure the delay which had taken place, and had on the whole expressed his satisfaction at the appointment of the commission. He could assure the hon. Member that political feeling had not had the slightest influence in the selection of the persons who are to form the commission. It was thought necessary to take Gentlemen of opposite opinions in politics, because large masses of the community could not have given the commission their confidence if there had been uniformity of opinion; but he had endeavoured together with his Colleagues, so to frame this commission that that source of distrust, at all events, had been avoided. With respect to the clergymen selected to be members, one was the minister of one of the largest commercial cities of Scotland, the rev. Dr. Macfarlane; the other was minister of a landward parish, well known both for his benevolence and his intelligence, as well as other qualities which pointed out the propriety of choosing him. He could assure the hon. Gentle- man that, upon the whole, after the best attention he could give to the subject, he believed that this commission was fairly composed. It was composed of men of talent, of caution, of prudence, of determination, and of knowledge, connected with the subject into which they were to inquire; and he was confident that their labours would lead to a full inquiry into the whole state of the case, which would enable Parliament, in its wisdom, to legislate on the subject. He did not think it was of paramount importance to have an equal balance either of parties or of opinions in the commission. What was wanted was a mass of evidence—fairly brought forward, carefully sifted, and placed on record. If the report contained evidence so taken and so sifted, he was quite confident that Parliament would be enabled to form a sound opinion in respect to all the conflicting difficulties of the subject, and to legislate satisfactorily upon them. The hon. Gentleman (the Member for St. Andrew's) had asked for the instructions given to the commission. Following the precedents of the Poor-law inquiries, both in England and in Ireland, no separate instructions had been given to them. Their instructions were contained in the instrument itself, and if the hon. Gentleman, instead of the instructions, would move for a copy of the warrant appointing the commission, he should have the utmost pleasure in consenting to the motion. He wished just to read to the House what were the words composing the warrant for instituting the inquiry, and then he thought it would be seen that more ample scope could not have been given for full and satisfactory investigation. The words were these:— They shall make full inquiry into the practical operation of the laws which provide for the relief of the poor in Scotland, and whether any and what alterations, amendments, or improvements may be beneficially made in the same laws, or in the manner of administering them, and how the same may best be carried into effect. These, pretty nearly, were the words of the original English Poor-law inquiry. He thought more extensive words could hardly be employed. No fetter whatever had been imposed on the inquiry itself The commission had been fairly constituted; the terms on which they were to assemble were large and ample; and he should be very much disappointed, in- deed, if the result of the inquiry did not lead to legislation which would be productive of good in that part of the United Kingdom.

Lord John Russell

certainly did not feel that the smallest blame could fairly be imputed to the late Government for not having issued such a commission as the present. He had felt, when he had the honour of filling the office now held by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, just as the right hon. Gentleman said he now felt—that it was a matter which required very considerable caution. It was, as he thought, a matter of much doubt, and there being a pressure of other questions relating to poor-laws in England, the introduction of a Poor-law in Ireland, and the new circumstances arising from the working of those alterations, he had always thought it was desirable to postpone any inquiry into the subject. With respect to any immediate destitution which might arise in the mean time, those cases of distress were not unattended to; and as his right hon. Friend (Mr. F. Maule) had said of the destitution that had occurred, persons were sent down for the purpose of investigating the particular cases. He remembered that a large deputation had once come to him on the subject of distress in Scotland, and he had suggested that some alterations in the Poor-laws might be required. That suggestion did not seem to him to be very acceptable to the gentlemen forming the deputation. He was perfectly satisfied, as far as he knew, with the commission, because he thought the name of Lord Melville was an earnest that the inquiry would be fairly conducted. It was right to issue that commission, yet he owned he could hardly venture to anticipate, with the right hon. Gentleman (Sir James Graham) that there would be perfectly satisfactory legislation on this subject. He admitted that, from the novel features by which the condition of Scotland was marked in recent times—the increase of population, the growth of large manufacturing towns, and the change in particular occupations which had taken place, in part of the Highlands, it might be desirable to alter the present laws for the re life of the poor of Scotland; but, on the other hand, he did not see how they could very well make an alteration without making it general. On comparing the situation of an able-bodied labourer in the rural districts of England with his condi- tion in some of the counties of Scotland, it certainly appeared to him that the able-bodied labourer in Scotland had the advantage. The absence of the English mode of relief produced a contrast between the employer and the labourer in Sootland, by which his labour, although perhaps reduced in price, was continued during the winter, while the facility for obtaining relief under the English Poor-law was a reason for discontinuing the employment of the labourer during part of that season of the year when there was little or no work at the farm, and the farmer's sons would enable him to dispense with some of his labourers. He thought, therefore, that any change that could be made in the condition of the rural labourers in some of the counties in Scotland must be a change for the worse. To make a change in the law of Scotland without making it general, would be a difficulty of which he confessed he saw no satisfactory way of getting rid. He thought the subject one to which the Legislature was bound to pay the greatest attention; but he must confess, for his part, that so far from feeling that he ought to have come to a decision on it some years ago, he felt, even now, that he was not at all sanguine of being able to form any satisfactory judgment on the question.

Mr. Hume

wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it were his intention that the inquiry of the commission should be extended to the whole of Scotland, or should be limited to the manufacturing districts only, as the right hon. Gentle man had observed that the law in its pre sent state was well suited to the wants of rural districts? He was of opinion, that the inquiry would not be satisfactory unless it extended to the rural as well as to the manufacturing districts, especially as in the former the most extensive destitution had prevailed. He observed, that out of the members of the commission, I there was not one individual especially connected with the large towns, or acquainted with their interests, and qualified to watch over them. He would remind the right hon. Baronet of the proceedings of the committee, which had inquired into the stale of the Highlands. When evidence was to be taken by them, what did the House think was the course they pursued? The chairman was a barrister, and the committee, which was composed of men connected in interests with the land- owners, passed a resolution that they would take the evidence of none but landed proprietors on the Poor-laws. A monstrous proposition he thought this; but here again were landed proprietors on this commission who might take the same course. He would suggest to the right hon. Baronet that it would be well to select two gentlemen connected with some of the large towns—Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Dundee. It was to be observed also, that the members of the commission were exclusively connected with the established Church, and in the present unhappy state of religious feeling in Scotland, it would be supposed that this was done on purpose. He would suggest that it would be better to avoid entire uniformity of creed, and that one dissenting clergyman might be added to the commission. He thought a body would thus be formed more likely to give satisfaction to the public, and gain general confidence in Scotland. He would recommend the Government to remove any doubt that existed as to the composition of the commission, as it would be a pity in any way to damage a tribunal which ought to satisfy every person.

Sir J. Graham

would offer a word of explanation in reply to what had fallen from the hon. Member. He could assure him it was the intention of her Majesty's Government, in appointing this commission, that its inquiries should not be limited to the town population, but should be extended to every portion of Scotland. The commission would sit in Edinburgh, but would have power to move from place to place, and institute inquiries, by the subdivision of its members in all quarters. With respect to the hon. Member's suggestion as to the appointment of a dissenting clergyman, it did so happen, fortunately for Scotland, that there was little difference of creed among its inhabitants, and that the points of variance between the Church and the Dissenters were merely questions of discipline. It was somewhat extraordinary that he, who had been called on to take part in the dispute which now divided the Church of Scotland should be accused on the one hand of giving an undue preference to the Church in this commission, and, on the other of having given a decision unfavourable to her pretensions.

Mr. C. Bruce

would slate, in reference to an observation which had fallen from the hon. Member for Montrose, that he had been a Member of the committee alluded to, and could remember no such determination as the hon. Member said was come to, for confining the selection of witnesses to the class of landed proprietors. He recollected that persons of all classes had been examined before the committee. It had certainly been proposed by the hon. Member for St. Andrew's to convert an inquiry into the destitution then existing into an inquiry respecting the actual working of the poor-laws; and the same hon. Member endeavoured to obtain from the committee some recommendation for introducing a change in the existing poor-laws of Scotland. To that proposal the committee declined to consent, having been appointed by the House for another purpose, and not considering themselves competent to enter on such an inquiry as the hon. Member suggested. With respect to another point alluded to in the discussion, he begged to state that in the agricultural districts of Scotland no such thing as real destitution was allowed to exist; and though the amount of relief afforded in such cases might sound exceedingly small to an English ear, it was still sufficient for its purpose. The Scottish system had in its operation promoted individual charity and benevolence, and maintained the independent character of the workman, who was not reduced to subsist on parochial relief.

Mr. Hume

said he was anxious to be correct, and he would therefore state that on the 3d of May, 1841, in the committee before named, it was moved by his Friend near him (Mr. Ellice), that certain witnesses be summoned to give evidence on various points connected with the inquiry. The motion was rejected by the casting vote of the chairman; so that the fact was, that the committee declined to receive any evidence but that of landed proprietors in the distressed districts.

Mr. Mackenzie

said the resolution alluded to was come to by the committee after they considered that the subject of the inquiry had been exhausted.

Mr. Hume

said he thought the inquiry ought to be conducted by individuals connected both with towns and rural districts, and inquired if the right hon. Baronet meant to adopt his suggestion with regard to appointing a person especially interested in the large towns.

Sir J. Graham

said he had used his best endeavours to constitute the commission in a manner fair and impartial, and likely to give satisfaction to the people of Scotland. Having made arrangements with noblemen and gentlemen, who had consented to serve on it, at great personal inconvenience to themselves and for the public good, it was utterly impossible for him, without reference to them, at once to change the composition of the body. He could hold out no likelihood of any such change being made, because he was perfectly satisfied that the Members of the commission would give their most candid and impartial examination of the various questions that would come before them.

Mr. Ellice

must declare that his opinion as to the composition of the commission remained unchanged. Looking to the proceedings of the former committee, in which the landed proprietors had prevented any inquiry from being made with reference to the Poor-laws, he must say that the success of the commission was extremely doubtful, and that in the meantime it had caused great dissatisfaction and distrust.

Motion agreed to.

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