HC Deb 27 July 1843 vol 70 cc1372-80

On the motion that the House resolve itself into a committee upon the Poor Relief (Ireland) Bill,

Mr. M. O'Ferrall

rose to call the attention of the House to the memorial of the board of guardians of the Edenderry union; the facts contained in which could not be controverted, as they had already been sifted by the Court of Queen's Bench. He trusted that the right hon. Baronet, after considering these statements, would make such an alteration in the measure as should remove the grounds of complaint. He would observe that lie believed the fault was not so much that of the bill, as of those who had to carry it into effect. [The hon. Gentleman then stated the case of the Edenderry union, on behalf of the guardians, for which see ante p. 1274]. Now, he complained that there was no appeal to any authority by which a board of guardians could be protected from excessive and extravagant demands. The Poor-law commissioners did not in this case enter into any explanation. They treated all appeals of this nature with indifference. He only asked, that with a view to prevent the recurrence of such cases, a clause should be inserted in the Poor-law Bill, which would give a cheap and summary appeal from the Poor-law commissioners. Among the greatest evils in the administration of the law were the appointments made by these commissioners in Ireland. They were beset by applications from people in England, and situations were thus given to individuals unconnected with Ireland, and ignorant of the customs, &c., of the country. He particularly complained of the appointment of the architect in this case; that gentleman might have been influenced by the best intentions, but he was ignorant of the way in which different kinds of work, &c., were carried on in Ireland. He could assure the House that the frequent instances of mismanagement upon the part of the Poor-law commissioners excited much opposition to the law from the ratepayers; indeed, much of the opposition manifested by them towards it arose from the mismanagement of the commissioners. If no remedy was applied in the case which he had brought forward —if the demand of the commissioners should be allowed—every member of the board of guardians would resign, and he felt sure that not one shilling of the rate necessary for the collection of the 1,250l, would be levied; and this too in a district which was always amenable to the law. By persisting in this demand, they would drive the district into the same state of opposition to the Poor-law as that which characterised the west and south of Ireland. He merely wished for a cheap and simple appeal, without the complication of proceedings of mandamus and certiorari, like the appeal given by the Municipal Act. If they would agree to something of this sort, it would show a disposition to afford a remedy for the grievances so much complained of.

Sir James Graham

had had no conception that it was the intention of the hon. Gentleman to bring this question before the House, and he was bound to say, that connected as it was with minute detail respecting the administration of the Poor-law in Ireland, he had been but imperfectly acquainted with it. It was the duty of the commission, before bringing into operation the means of affording parish relief according to law, to cause a large number of workhouses to be built at once. This operation—under a law entirely novel in the country—under a system, the machinery of which they had no experience in managing—was a most difficult one, and naturally led to some disappointment. From all he could gather, he believed that in the case of the Edenderry workhouse there had been a lavish expenditure of money, and he believed that one portion of the building was ill executed, and another was expensively executed. But having said so much, he was bound to state that he differed from the hon. Gentleman opposite with respect to the course of proceedings taken by the Board of Guardians. The hon. Gentleman founded his complaint upon an alleged infraction of the 30th clause of the Poor-law Act, which clause declared that when a workhouse should have been pronounced by the Poor-law commissioners fit for the reception of paupers, they might make one declaration of the expenditure incurred, and after such declaration being made, they should not have power to raise any further sum, to be expended in the buildings. above 400l., without the consent of a majority of the Board of Guardians. The hon. Gentleman stated, that after the declaration had been made by the commissioners that the workhouse was fitted for the reception of paupers, the commissioners found that the sum originally intended for the erection of the workhouse was deficient by 1,250l., and they, therefore, called upon the union for a rate to levy the amount, a demand which was resisted, as stated by the hon. Gentleman, upon the technical ground that the paupers had been admitted before the balance had been declared; and that this further balance—this balance outstanding, and due, did not form a part of the original outlay—now the hon. Gentleman, in alluding to the 30th clause of the Act, had omitted to state an important exception contained in it, to the primary provision of the clause. The clause enacted that no sum exceeding 400l. should be levied after the workhouse had been declared fit for the reception of paupers, without the consent of a majority of the Board of Guardians. There was an exception made, however, in favour of money to be levied for the completion of buildings already in part erected, according to the plans and specifications originally sanctioned by the Poor-law commissioners. The second order had been issued by the Poor-law commissioners under this exception to which he had alluded. The 1,250l. was claimed as an outstanding balance falling under the exception. The question was, whether the Board of Guardians could show that this was an irregular order on the part of the commissioners. If they could show that this balance did not fall within the scope of the exception, then they would be successful in their case—the question was quite an open one. It was a question for a court of law, not for the House to decide; and as he understood that his hon. Friend had stated the case merely for the purpose of introducing a clause to remedy the grievance of which he complained, all he could say was, that if his hon. Friend would bring up a clause to this effect he would be very happy to discuss it. The hon. Gentleman seemed to say that it was not his duty to bring up such a clause. He said, upon the other hand, that he was not prepared to interfere with the jurisdiction of the competent tribunal before which this question might be brought to issue, and satisfactorily determined. The hon. Gentleman asked the Government to provide a cheap and summary mode of appeal to the Court of Queen's Bench. He did not, for his own part, see any course more cheap or more summary than that which was now open to parties who felt themselves aggrieved. If the hon. Gentleman would point out any mode of proceeding more summary and less expensive, he would gladly consider it; but, as at present advised, he contended that if there should be injustice perpetrated towards an union, redress was open to them in the mode he had referred to.

Sir C. Denham Norreys

agreed with his hon. Friend in thinking that there should be some mode of calling in question the discretion of the commissioners. It would give great and general satisfaction to the rate-payers to know that there was some cheap appeal open to them from the decisions of the commissioners.

Mr. Smith O'Brien.

remarked, that the case of Edenderry was not without parallel. The appeal, as at present existing, to the Court of Queen's Bench, was not upon the merits of the question, but as to the legality of the acts of the Poor-law commissioners. Surely, the right hon. Gentleman would not say there was no remedy that could be applied to this evil. He hoped the case brought before the House would induce them to introduce some such clause into the bill as his hon. Friend had alluded to.

Captain Jones

thought it his duty to inform the Government, that the case stated by the hon. Member for Kildare was not a solitary one, and that the same complaint was made in many other Unions —the only difference being that in Edenderry the Poor-law commissioners committed a legal blunder in making an order which they had no right to make. In the Derry Union they committed the same blunder, and on sending a person down to inquire, they pared off a few of the charges. So badly was part of the work done in the workhouse of that Union, that when the paupers were in there, he himself saw the rain falling through the roof. This was by no means a solitary case; and he believed, that if every Gentleman were to state what occurred in his own district, he would make a similar complaint to that of the hon. Member for Kildare.

Lord John Russell

did not exactly know what remedy his hon. Friend would wish to propose to the House, and he thought that, if he could devise one, he should prepare a clause embodying it. At the same time he must say, that with respect to the case which the hon. Gentleman had brought forward, he thought there should be some inquiry made, and some decision come to, particularly as the hon. and gallant Gentleman who had spoken last had stated, that the case of Edenderry was by no means a solitary one. His hon. Friend, in stating that case, had spoken of the appointments of commissioners in putting the Poor-law into operation in Ireland. Now, with regard to that Poor-law in all its main features, and also with regard to these appointments, he was certainly far more responsible than the right hon. Baronet opposite, who was not at all sanguine as to the results of the measure. He was not going to discuss the general question of the Poor-laws in Ireland, but as to the appointments spoken of, he would observe that they were certainly made in the same way as appointments in England—that was to say, it was left to the commissioners to find persons who they thought would be most fit for the duties to be entrusted to them. The Poor-law commissioners were originally appointed by the Prime Minister, and it was thought proper to entrust them with the discretion of select- ing assistant commissioners. He believed, that in appointing these assistant commissioners, the principal commissioners looked to fitness—to capacity—they looked to vigilance and zeal, as much as did any men who were ever invested with patronage. These were the motives by which, to the best of his belief, they were guided in making their appointments. When such appointments were to be made in Ireland, the commissioners thought that it would not be a successful mode of operation were they to appoint gentlemen who had never seen the Poor-law in operation, and who were unacquainted with the method of managing workhouses, and they thought that persons who had been conversant with the details of the English Poor-law would be more fit to carry the law into operation (with the assistance of those who were Irishmen and knew the country well), than could any Gentleman who up to the time of his appointment was unacquainted with the subject. He was so far responsible for the appointments which had been made, as he had sent over to the commissioners many hundreds of applications which he had received, and which he supposed they duly considered. He knew not how far the gentlemen appointed had performed their duties. Of those of whom he had heard, he heard a very high character. The hon. Member for Roscommon had spoken very highly in praise of one of those gentlemen. With respect to the architect alluded to, admitting that Gentleman's professional talents, he yet, since his appointment, had seen reason to have some doubts as to its expediency.

Sir J. Graham:

Looking at this subject retrospectively, must say that he had not altogether neglected this subject. He had consulted Mr. Nicholls as to the construction of the workhouses, and also his brother commissioners in England. He had directed Sir E. Head to make a general inquiry on the subject. The outlay was said to be extravagant for the work done, and many imperfections were attributed to buildings, such as not being weather tight, but the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) had admitted with perfect candour, that the architect was riot deficient in skill, and that he could alone be censured for having superintended so many works at the same time. Eighty workhouses wet e erected simultaneously, with the view of bringing the act into operation as speedily as possible, and though he was bound to say that there was in some instances a larger outlay than was necessary, the result of the best investigation he could give the subject was, that there was no malversation in any quarter. He entirely acquitted Mr. Nicholls, and he also thought the architect free from blame. With respect to the past, then, he did not consider it consistent with his duty to visit any party with punishment. With regard to the future, whether there should be an appeal from the commissioners, and to what tribunal, that was a matter for consideration.

Mr. Archbold

thought that the commissioners had conducted affairs very unhappily; and he observed, that the bill formed a bad legacy from the last Government; but its management certainly had been rather improved than the reverse by the present Ministry. Still, there were strong grounds of complaint; and he himself could instance a case in which, despite all information and admonition, the commissioners had, neglecting numerous eligible situations for the workhouse, insisted on having it erected actually on a swamp, the only swamp in the country; passing by places where both dry ground and clear springs could have been found,—on the banks, too, of a good river, they pitched on a marshy position where hundreds would have to be spent in draining, and water could be got at with difficulty. Thus it was, that unhealthiness was actually encountered, and expense needlessly entailed. Affairs were rather getting worse than improving, and if the evil was not soon remedied the Government would learn the necessity of strong measures of redress.

House went into committee.

On clause 6, "goods to whomsoever they may belong, found on premises, may be distrained."

Mr. Collett

moved, that it be struck out.

Mr. T. B. Smith

said, the object of this clause was to prevent persons from evading payment of the poor-rates, by transferring their property to other members of their families. The clause provided that any property on the premises might be seized for payment of the poor-rates.

Mr. Wyse

said, that in the case of county or grand jury cess no power was given to seize the property of lodgers; and he thought there was no reason for giving such power under this act.

Mr. F. French

supported the amendment. He believed, that if the Government pressed such measures, they would call another Rebecca into existence in Ireland. He was convinced, that under this objectionable law they would be unable to obtain payment of the rates, even with the aid of the 30,000 soldiers now stationed in that country.

Committee divided on the question, that the clause stand part of the bill. Ayes 99; Noes 18;—Majority 81.

Clause agreed to.

8th and 9th clauses agreed to.

The House resumed. Committee to sit again.

House adjourned at one o'clock.