HC Deb 13 March 1843 vol 67 cc754-65
Mr. Ferrand

rose to move, as an amendment, for A list of the guardians of the Halifax Union who assembled at the Board on Wednesday, the 1st day of March instant, specifying the ex officio guardians from the elected guardians; also a list of the guardians who were not present, specifying the ex officio guardians from the elected guardians; also the name of the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner who attended the board: also a copy of their minutes and proceedings as well as of the resolutions adopted by the board; also a copy of all notices given at any preceding meeting of the board relating to any proceeding or resolution adopted by the board of the 1st day of March. He felt that in bringing forward this motion he owed some apology to the House and to the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had, a few days ago, requested the production of certain papers relative to the proceedings of the Halifax Board of Guardians, and if the right hon. Baronet (Sir James Graham) had acceded to that request it would not have been necessary for him to adopt his present course. In the discharge of his parliamentary duties he (Mr. Ferrand) had deemed it necessary to allude to the conduct of Mr. Clements, an Assistant-Poor Law Commissioner. He stated that, from information he had received from private sources, and from public papers, he considered that Mr. Clements had conducted himself in an insolent and overbearing manner in attempting to enforce the Poor Law in all its rigour. Mr. Clements, while acting at the Halifax Board of Guardians had thought proper to assist in passing a vote of censure upon his (Mr. Ferrand's) conduct for having alluded to him in the House. He understood that there was reason to believe that that meeting, at which eighteen guardians attended, was not convened by a proper notice issued by the clerk to the whole body of guardians. At that meeting the board of guardians resolved that a strong athletic man should be appointed, at a weekly salary, to act in the capacity of taskmaster, for the purpose of applying a more severe test to the out-door labourers. It would be found that the board of guardians having, with the sanction of Mr. Clements decided upon adoping a more severe test in respect of out-door labour, had also decided upon adopting a more severe test within the workhouse. The question was brought before the board how that test could be most advantageously enforced, and different plans having been proposed, that of a treadwheel was discussed, and how many men it would employ. This treadwheel the board of guardians directed to be erected, and a member of the board undertook to see it erected. He had stated that some time ago, when he last addressed the House on this subject. The right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham) stated that it was not so, and that instead of a tread wheel to be applied to a rack machine, there was only to be erected a hand-mill for corn. He next day received more information from another person. The right hon. Baronet, however, again said that the mill was only a corn-mill, and that he was told that by the Poor Law Commissioners. The board of guardians of the Halifax Union had passed a resolution reflecting on words used by him in the discharge of his duty to his constituents and to the country—a resolution which had been brought to the board from his own house by one of the ex officio guardians, and this was passed by the board of guardians, Mr. Clements, the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, assisting at the meeting. The same day an order was passed with the sanction and approbation of Mr. Clements, for excluding the reporters of the public press from the board room during the meetings of the board. But what sort of a corn-mill had been erected, did the House think? Why, none at all; but, instead, a rag machine had been erected, for the purpose of grinding rags obtained from the poor of the towns on the continent, and impregnated with all manner of contagion and filth, and he was told that the stench was so great, and the dust arising from the grinding so oppressing, that they had the greatest difficulty in parts of Yorkshire, where rags of this kind were ground for purposes of fraud by the cloth manufacturers, to get persons to undertake the work. But, in order to make this more of an infliction on the poor pauper, the wheel was to be worked by capstans, which were to be turned by the poor like horses. These capstans were to be worked at not only by the feet, but by the hands and breasts. According to the opinion of a medical gentleman whom he had seen, it was highly injurious to the health to labour in this way, and was likely to end in apoplexy. This was the sort of mill which was about to be erected in the Halifax union workhouse for the employment of the poor there, either with or without the knowledge of the Poor Law Commissioners; if they knew of it, then they had deceived the House in the statement which they had authorized the right hon. Baronet to make in his place; if they, did not know of it, then they had neglected their duty. But he would call the attention of the House to a corn-mill within a stone's throw of the place where they were sitting. In the Lambeth union workhouse a corn-mill had been erected, for the purpose of more severely testing the labour of the poor; and he asked the House to decide, that night, whether such things were to be suffered in this country or not. At this corn-mill, in the Lambeth union workhouse, he found it was intended that sixty-four persons were to work at once; sixteen at indoor labour, and forty-eight at outdoor. The mill was worked by one crank, which was so large that every time these poor wretches worked they must bend with their hands to the ground. The mill was under a shed. And what was the object of this contrivance? Why, whenever a poor person came to the workhouse to ask for a loaf of bread, he was to be shown these poor wretches working at the crank under a shed. But another exposure had taken place. In a leading article of the Times newspaper of that day it was stated, that within the last seven years 9,315 persons had been committed to prison in England and Wales for offences against the rules and regulations of union workhouses, and that in the year 1842 no fewer than 2,299 persons had been imprisoned in her Majesty's gaols for breaches of those rules and regulations. Sir J. Graham had insinuated that he had stated in the House what was not true, and the right hon. Baronet called on the House not to place too much confidence in what he said. Now, whatever he might think of the right hon. Baronet's conduct to him, a supporter of her Majesty's Government, as he had been, whenever he conscientiously could be, he had to tell the right hon. Baronet that the question was between the right hon. Baronet and himself which of their statements coincided with truth. If the right hon. Baronet could induce the House to agree to refuse these resolutions, still he (Mr. Ferrand), it must be remembered, was courting every inquiry. He desired nothing more than that the matter should be sifted fully, and that the right hon. Baronet and himself should be placed fairly before the country. If the right hon. Baronet succeeded in refusing the papers, the country would conclude that he was convinced that the production of the papers would show not only so much cruelty, and such ill-treatment of the poor that it would not be expedient to produce them, but also that if the poor did not like to enter an union workhouse, they had nothing left to look forward to but the right hon. Baronet's corn-mill.

Sir J. Graham

hoped the House would agree with him that on the present occasion it would not be expedient that he should follow the hon. Member for Knaresborough into any of the new matter that he had adduced. The hon. Member had raised the question for the first time of the Lambeth Union workhouse. He did not intend to follow the hon. Member into that subject. He had had no opportunity of testing the accuracy of the hon. Member's information. Much less did he intend to follow the hon. Member to the leading article of The Times newspaper, or into anything which might have been stated there that morning. It would be much better, in his opinion, to confine himself to the motion before the House. The hon. Member had charged him with saying, that he (Mr. Ferrand) had made an untrue statement to the House. His respect for the House—he had almost said for himself—would have prevented him, he trusted, from doing any such thing; but he did say, that from the zeal of the hon. Member he adopted such exaggerated statements, that without the hon. Gentleman's meaning it, if the House were to affix any credit to those statements they would infallibly be mistaken. The real question upon the present occasion was, not as to the intended erection of a rag-mill in the Halifax Union work house; it was not whether the mill was to be turned by a capstan or any other power; but the House would remember that the statement of the hon. Member was that a treadmill was erected there. [Mr. Ferrand: I said a treadwheel.] He understood it to be a treadmill, according to the hon. Member's statement, and the hon. Gentleman went so far as to say that the workhouses were to be made prisons of; and he, taking the usual acceptance of the term "treadmill," positively denied, as far as he was informed, that any treadmill was to be erected in the workhouse in question. The hon. Gentleman had that evening wandered away to a rag-mill; but this was not much to the purpose, because he did not say that no mill had been erected; he did say that the mill in question was to be worked by hand. He believed that it was to be applied to the grinding of corn. He was mistaken. The mill was not to be applied to grind corn, but rags; with that exception he was satisfied that his first statement to the House was not in the least incorrect. The right hon. Gentleman then read a letter from Mr. Clements, in which he stated that the guardians of the Halifax Union had taken steps for the erection of a handmill for the purpose of giving work to the paupers who had no objection to remain in the workhouse. He was glad, the right hon. Gentleman continued, to see the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. C. Wood) in his place, because he (Sir J. Graham had received a letter from a gentleman who appeared to be a member of the Halifax board of guardians, and who referred him to the Member for Halifax for his respectability. The Gentleman's name was Holston, and he said, that having observed it stated that the board of guardians of the Halifax Union proposed to erect a treadwheel in the workhouse, and that Mr. Clements had not prevented it, he could only say that no such thing had taken place, and that, if there had, every member of the board would have scouted it. It was true a rag-mill had been erected. With the exception, therefore, that the mill was intended for grinding rags instead of corn, he appealed to the House whether his original statement were not correct, and whether the hon. Gentleman had not failed in making out his case? In fact, he considered that this motion was the same substantially as that which the hon. Gentleman brought forward the other day, and which the House rejected by so large a majority; and, although, strictly speaking, there might have been some breach of privilege involved in the conduct of the board of guardians of the Halifax Union, he thought it highly inexpedient that they should embark on a voyage of discovery for a breach of the privileges of the House under the auspices of the hon. Member for Knaresborough. He repeated, that, although there might have been some irregularity in the board of guardians entering into the consideration of the speech of a Member of that House, the utmost charge was that Mr. Clements was present at the board during the discussion, though he was no party whatever to the vote; and with respect to the charge that Mr. Clements had shown an insolent demeanor and oppressive conduct at the board, he did think, if such a statement fell from an hon. Member in that House, that should the guardians have noticed the injustice and inaccuracy of the statement, whatever technical error they had committed by naming it, they had not morally committed any great offence when they came to a resolution negativing the charge. He hoped the House would come to the same resolution as it did on a former evening. He would be unwilling to meet the motion by a direct negative; but that was not necessary; the House had only to persist in the motion, that the Speaker leave the Chair, and that would be the easiest and safest course to escape the difficulty in which the hon. Member sought to involve them.

Mr. C. Wood

rose only to state, that Mr. James Holston was one of the guardians of the Halifax union, upon whose opinion and testimony the utmost reliance could be placed. The board of guardians were unanimously of opinion, that the conduct of Mr. Clements was in no way whatever liable to the imputations made against him. They were the only persons competent to judge of his conduct, and this was their opinion.

Mr. Ross

had stated the other night, that Mr. Clements attended the board in consequence of some sort of complaint; he was in error, as there had not been a complaint against him. It was his duty to attend the board, and when there the resolution was moved, but he was no party to it. When the hon. Member for Knaresborough had first brought forward this matter, he had stated he was convinced, that Mr. Clements would be anxious for every inquiry. He spoke this in his zeal to preserve Mr. Clements' character; but after the right hon. Baronet (Sir James Graham) had spoken, he had felt he was in error, and had sacrificed his consistency to his sense of propriety by voting against the motion for inquiry, and he regretted that he had misled some hon. Members into being caught voting with the hon. Member for Knaresborough. Mr. Clements was now in town, and he would only offer to the hon. Member to be the medium of introducing him, and then let them settle the matter.

Mr. R. Yorke

did not find that there had been any positive contradiction given to what the hon. Member for Knaresbo rough had asserted. It seemed there had been a meeting—a packed meeting as he called it, from not having been regularly summoned, of the board of guardians, at which was passed the resolution in question, which the hon. Member said had been brought ready cut and dried from his own house by one of the ex officio guar- dians. Now this looked, he must say, very much as if the resolution had been preconcerted, and if preconcerted, it was not impossible, that it might proceed from personal motives; and that possibility appeared the more striking, when they found that the board of guardians had since refused the reporters of the public press admittance to their proceedings. Consequently, though on the last occasion on which this subject was before the House, he had voted against the hon. Member for Knaresborough, and though it was not his wish to give a wild vote, yet, acting independently, and seeing no inconvenience likely to arise from the production of these papers, he should vote for the amendment of the hon. Member.

Mr. C. Wood

wished to say, that he considered the hon. Member for Knaresborough was mistaken as to the resolution.

Mr. B. Escott

thought the hon. Member for Knaresborough could answer himself, and overturn his own argument, for as related to the use of the treadwheel, the motion of the hon. Gentleman could not be sustained upon any substantial ground. As to the exclusion of reporters, the board of guardians were authorised to adopt that course by the powers vested in them by Parliament. He could not, therefore, vote for the motion of the hon. Member for Knaresborough, after the substantial ground of the motion was taken away.

Mr. Wallace

considered it a matter of great importance, that there should be no concealment in matters relating to the manner in which the poor were treated in the union workhouses. If, as it was calculated, 1,500,000 persons were subjected to the regulations by which the union workhouses were regulated, it was the imperative duty of English Gentlemen to look to the regulations to which they were subjected. He was sorry that the question of privilege should be in any way mixed up with the present motion, and he would, therefore, not address himself to that point, but with respect to the use of a mill—whether the motion was upward or downward, or backward or forward, it did not signify—if labour in that shape was imposed, the matter ought to be inquired into. If it were a mill for grinding rags, or for making what the hon. Member for Knaresborough called last year "the devil's dust," to be used as manure, or for other purposes, nothing could be more unwholesome or destructive to the human frame. The question was of additional importance, inasmuch as it was in contemplation to introduce Poor-laws into Scotland, and it was desirable that the people who were likely to be subject to its operation, should know the manner in which it was intended to employ them. He hoped the noble Lord, the Member for Dorsetshire, who had rendered such service to his country by taking up the questions of factories and mines, would take care to see that the poor people of this country should not be engaged in such an unwholesome employment as grinding rags into dust. With this view of the case, he would support the motion of the hon. Member for Knaresborough.

Mr. John S. Worthy

objected to the motion. If the House wished to obtain information respecting the machinery used for the purposes of labour in the Halifax Union, the proper mode would be to move for any communications on the subject between the Poor-law Commissioners and the board of guardians of Halifax. If such a motion were made, he was sure the right hon. Baronet, at the head of the Home Department, would not object to it.

Mr. Ferrand's

only object was to let the House and the country know what had taken place. He found, that there was a treadwheel ordered for the Halifax Union, which was to hold from four to forty persons. He did not know what had since occurred, and he would take no steps to bring Mr. Clements to the Bar of the House, if the papers were produced.

Mr. S. Crawford

felt himself bound to vote for the motion, with a view to obtain information as respected the manner in which the poor were treated in the workhouse; but, in voting for the motion, it was not the wish to go into the privilege question.

Mr. Hume

would support the motion of the hon. Member for Knaresborough, on the ground, that when there were any complaints as to abuses, with respect to the labour done in workhouses, no attempt at secrecy should be made by excluding the press. Under such circumstances, inquiry became incumbent, and, therefore, the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham) ought not to object to the production of the papers asked for by the hon. Member for Knaresborough.

Sir J. Graham

would admit, that if abuses were alleged to exist in the prac- tice of any union workhouse, it was fit and proper, that the House should inquire into the subject; and if the hon. Member for the West Riding of Yorkshire (Mr. Wortley) wished to move for papers relating to the nature of the wheel used and the work done in the Halifax workhouse, there would be no objection to their production; but the motion of the hon. Member for Knaresborough referred to the production of the resolution of the board of guardians, which he before alleged to be a breach of privilege, and to such a motion he would strenuously object.

Sir R. Peel

said, that the motion of the hon. Member for Knaresborough pointed to no distinct object. He understood it as a renewal of the question of privilege, and that it was the intention of the hon. Gentleman to enforce the charge against Mr. Clements. Into that question the House, in his opinion, had better not enter. No person had more at heart the privileges of the House than he, but it was because of his regard for them that he would not wish to enforce a debate on them in the present instance. It was very natural if a man's personal character was injured by an erroneous imputation in that House, that he should endeavour to free himself from it, and it would be very hard if he were not at liberty to do so. The House did not enforce its privileges with respect to the publication of the debates, and it was natural if a man were injured by those publications, that he should try and set himself right.

Mr. T. Duncombe

understood the motion to be, that if the House were put in possession of certain official papers the hon. Member for Knaresborough would exculpate Mr. Clements from any charge of breach of privilege. As the House was about to alter the New Poor-law, it was desirable that it should be put in possession of the character and working of one of the union workhouses, which was looked upon as a pattern one. The hon. Member for Knaresborough only asked for the proceedings and minutes relating to a particular day, and those minutes were refused, on the ground that the motion was mixed up with a question of privilege. These papers had nothing to do with privilege, and it was proper that the House should know what was done by Mr. Clements or by the board under his influence. Why, he should like to know, were copies of the proceedings refused? The resolution did not reflect on Mr. Clements, it merely asked for certain papers, that the House might be put in possession of what occurred on a particular day. They could not legislate fairly on the amendments proposed to be made in the Poor-law if the papers were refused.

Lord J. Russell

did not understand the question in the way in which it appeared to be understsod by the hon. Member for Finsbury, and he would therefore vote the other way. After what had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for the Home Department, he understood that there was no objection to furnish every information respecting the nature of the work done, or the manner of employment in the Halifax Union work house. He could not infer from the course adopted by Government any intention of withholding information either as to that or any other workhouse; but the hon. Member for Knaresborough, amongst other grievances, complained of a breach of privilege on the part of Mr. Clements, an assistant Poor-law commissioner, and grounded the complaint on a resolution adopted by the board of guardians at Halifax. The House did not shut out the reporters from the press, and when it was stated in the papers in the report of a speech that certain things were done by the Poor-law guardians, they came to some resolution to the contrary. He objected then, to that part of the resolution which would bring the House into a contest with the guardians for honestly denying what had been attributed to them. He could not see the use of such contests; but as regarded the other part—namely, the manner in which the union was conducted and the work performed, he thought that every information should be given.

Mr. Gally Knight

said, he had an account of the matter yesterday from Mr. Clements's own lips, and that Gentleman assured him that he had used no influence with the board of guardians to induce them to pass the resolution, nor had he any hand whatsoever in it. Mr. Clements was present when it passed, but he did not wish it to pass, nor had it his concurrence. Mr. Clements also told him that there was neither a treadmill nor a tread wheel in the union, but there was a hand mill, which had not then been introduced for the first time, but had been there for several years. The labour, as it was by no means severe, and it was found to be the best mode of employing able-bodied paupers, more especially as it was difficult to find labour for them which would not interfere with out-door employment.

Mr. Ferrand obtained leave to withdraw his motion.

Motion withdrawn.

House in committee of Ways and Means,

A vote for 8,000,00l; payable out of the consolidated fund was agreed to, and the House resumed.