HC Deb 31 March 1843 vol 68 cc288-95

House in Committee of Supply. On the question, that the sum of 56,508l,, be granted to her Majesty, to defray the charge of salaries and expenses of the Commissioners for carrying into execution the Act for the Amendment of the Laws relating to the Poor in England and Wales, and the Act for the Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland.

Colonel Sibthorp

rose to oppose the vote. It was not a sum that was already due, being for salaries, &c, payable on the 31st of March, 1844, and he did not see why they should vote prospectively so large a sum of money, after they had been told, that the right hon. Baronet, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, meant to bring in a Poor-law Bill upon a new principle, which he expected would reduce by a very considerable sum the expenses of the commission. Now, if that were to be the case, although he hoped the right hon. Baronet would not succeed in carrying his measure through the House, he thought it would be much more satisfactory to the country, before they agreed to this vote, if the right hon. Baronet would inform them in what state that bill now was whether it were the right hon. Baronet's intention to press it forward in the present Session, and, if so, at what period of the Session? Whenever the right hon. Baronet brought it forward, it should receive his humble opposition, He was not at all willing to allow the vote to pass unquestioned, and he should propose a reduction, though, indeed, not a reduction which would satisfy him, for he would wish to annihilate the whole commission. The charge for the assistant-commissioners was 5,000l. He thought this a useless and unfair charge on the public, for the system took away all power from the local authorities, and was opposed to the public benefit as well as the Benefit of the poor. With regard to Ireland, he thought some system of Poor-laws should be adopted in that country, but he should not wish to see established there the same cruel system as existed in England. He moved, that the vote be reduced to 20,385l.

Sir J. Graham

said, in answer to the question of the hon. and gallant Officer, that it was the intention of the Government to introduce the Poor-law Amendment Bill in the course of the present Session, but it was not intended to alter the provisions of the act of last year, with reference to the continuance of the com- mission for five years. The pledge he had given with regard to the reduction of the expense of the commission, was fulfilled in the present estimate; for whereas in 1839, the cost of the commission for England and Ireland was 69,364l., the vote now proposed did not exceed 56,000l. He had given an assurance last year, that the number of assistant-commissioners should be reduced as far as convenient; and this pledge had also been fulfilled, for the number of assistant-commissioners was now reduced by three. He had given a similar assurance with respect to the number of assistant-commissioners in Ireland; and this assurance had likewise been fulfilled, for already one assistant-commissioner had been reduced, and he expected that in the course of the present year, a further reduction might be made. He should be sorry that the committee should come to a decision on this vote under a misapprehension as to the continuance of the commission. The hon. and gallant Officer was most desirous, that the commission should be abolished. This question had been discussed in principle and detail in the course of the last Session; and the House decided in favour of the continuance of the commission; and now the committee had to decide whether they were prepared to provide for the support of the commission, which a large majority of the House had declared to be absolutely necessary. He had stated his opinion so often on the subject, that he was almost ashamed to repeat it. The practical working of the Poor-law measure was, in his opinion, impossible, without the aid of the central committee in London, and of the assistant-commissioners throughout the country. It was expected that the executive Government should be ready to answer questions with respect to the operation of the measure in various parts of the United Kingdom, and the Government could only obtain the necessary knowledge, and exercise a general superintendence and control, over the operation of the measure, through the instrumentality of the assistant-commissioners. He had formerly used an expression, which he now deliberately repeated, that the assistant-commissioners were the eyes and hands of the Executive Government, in respect to the operation of this measure. He was anxious, nevertheless, to reduce the expense as far as possible of this branch of the system, and not needlessly to multiply the number of the assistant-commissioners. The complaints against these commissioners had varied very much in their nature. It had been sometimes said of them, that they exercised too much control, but in the course of the present Session the general objection made was of an opposite nature; for whenever it represented that there had been any improper labour enforced in any workhouse, or that the health of the inmates was affected, or that there was anything wrong in the system of education in the schools, or in the details of the administration of the Poor-law, it was complained that the assistant-commissioner had not performed his duty with sufficient strictness. He could not believe, that what had been adopted by a large majority of the House last year, would now be reversed in a committee, where none but arguments which had been repeated usque ad nauseam were brought forward.

Captain Pechell

said, he had been compelled by the manner in which the Poor-law was administered to offer to it every opposition in his power. The whole system had been one of interference with every arrangement which had been left untouched at the passing of the Poor-law Bill. Towns governed by boards of guardians, and incorporated parishes under the Gilbert unions, had been molested in every way; and this annoyance had been effected by the Poor-law commission through the agency of the assistant-commissioners.

When he saw the improper manner in which they introduced themselves into the workhouses, he felt bound to express his disapprobation of the administration of the law, by supporting the motion of the hon. and gallant Officer. The amount of the salaries of the assistant Poor-law commissioners was 6,300l., and their travelling expenses 8,200l. This, he supposed, included the expenses of the assistant-commissioner, who visited Sussex, and introduced himself in a smuggling manner into one of the Gilbert Union workhouses, not being known as an assistant-commissioner, and who obtained evidence from the governor of the workhouse in an improper way. A vote of censure was passed on him by the board, as well as on the individual who introduced him without any notice being given to the principal authority of the workhouse—the visitor. The object of all this interference with the Gilbert-unions was to effect their dissolution, and bring them under the paternal sway of the Poor-law commission. The conduct of the assistant-commissioners had, with only one exception, created nothing but dissatisfaction. The right hon. Baronet had said the other night that be was labouring under a malady. If this were so, he trusted the malady would not visit him in such a manner as to occasion on his part any abandonment or desertion of his political principles.

Mr. Hume

understood that the hon. and gallant Officer (Colonel Sibthorp) wished to abolish the Poor-law commission; but he did not think that any rational man could desire to return to the system which existed before the establishment of the commission. The time would come when the hostility raised against the commission would cease, and then it might be considered possible greatly to reduce the expense of the commission; but he could not contemplate the time when the country could do without some central board to carry out the details of the measure and exercise a general superintendence. The right hon. Baronet had promised to reduce the number of assistant-commissioners, and as the number did not exceed nine there was a saving under that head. He was satisfied that until the system was entirely established in England and Ireland this commission could not be done away with. He wished to know whether the report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the state of the agricultural districts would soon be laid on the Table of the House; and whether, with respect to the school at Norwood, which was conducted on a most excellent principle, the sum of 500l., which appeared on the estimates, was all the expense connected with that establishment?

Sir J. Graham

stated that last year, when the Poor-law Commission Continuance Act passed, the number of assistant-commissioners was twelve. He then said he thought that number might be reduced; and he had fulfilled the assurance given to the House, for the number was now only nine—not too large a number to perform the duties connected with the various unions in England and Wales. The commissioners of the inquiry into the state of the agricultural districts had made their report, and it would shortly be laid before the House. With respect to the Norwood school, which was conducted on the best prin- ciples, portion of the expense was contributed by the different parishes that seat children there, and the whole expense falling en the public was 500l.

Mr. W. Williams

observed, that though the expediency of abolishing the Poor-law commission might be doubted, still he thought the vast expense for England and Wales, where the unions were now formed, might be considerably reduced. At present, though the unions had been formed, there were precisely the same salaries paid, the same number of commissioner and assistant-commissioners, as when the heavy work was being done. He could not understand how the travelling expenses, which were at the rate of 3l. per day, could be justified. This, as well as the amount paid to clerks, was, in his judgment, a complete waste of the public money. He should like to know what now were the duties of a secretary at 1,200l., and two assistant-secretaries at 750l. par annum, besides twenty-seven clerks, now that the unions had all been formed. This was an establishment totally uncalled for, and was only upheld for the purpose of furnishing places for individuals. If, therefore, the motion of the hon. and gallant Member for Lincoln was to keep the establishment to the limit to which it might be reduced, be should vote for it.

Mr. J. Fielden

was convinced the country would be much better satisfied to return to the state of things which existed under the old system than to continue the unconstitutional machinery of the present Poor-law—a measure which had been introduced and carried for the purpose of reducing the wages of the labouring population. The right hon. Baronet, the Secretary for the Home Department, the other night had said, that a deep debt of gratitude was be to the labouring population for the patience they bad manifested under most trying circumstances, and how was that debt of gratitude paid? Why, by now keeping up a law and a set of commissioners, who had been mainly instrumental in reducing the wages of labour, and in bringing about that state of thins which occurred in the latter end of last summer. If the Legislature persevered with the law and this commission, be was convinced it would pursue a course which ere long would involve the country in bloodshed. The right hon. Baronet bad told the House, that if the committee withheld this grant, the commission would be abolished. Then he contended, that every Member who voted in favour of the grant would take upon himself the responsibility of continuing the commission, and the state of things which flowed from its operation, and which placed the country in danger. The New Poor-law was intended to reduce the people to coarse food. It could not be denied, that it had had that effect, and that a serious reduction in wages had taken place. If hon. Members, then, would persevere in supporting the machinery from which so much evil had arisen, upon them would rest the responsibility, and not upon him, who had warned them of its consequences.

Sir J. Guest

remarked, that it was arrant nonsense to ascribe the reduction of the wages of labour to the operation of the New Poor-law.

Mr. Wakley

said, the hon. Baronet who had just sat down had been in the enjoyment of a flourishing trade for the last few years; but in a few years hence he would see a difference in his own district from the working of this measure. His opinion on the subject remained unchanged; he was still for the abolition of the commission. The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, who had always voted against the commission, was, in effect going to vote for it by agreeing to this money grant for its support. If the hon. and learned Member wished to give a useful and practical vote, now was the time, by voting against the salaries of the commissioners. He might rest assured there was no patriotism in the commissioners—they would not work without pay, and, therefore, by denying them the grant of their salaries, the commission might be wholly abolished. He wanted to ask the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir J. Graham), if he did not thing extraordinary, that the sum required for postage in the office of the Poor-law commissioners should be so great as compared with the amount required in the right hon. Baronet's own office. The sum required for the Home-office, which was in constant communication with magistrates and other authorities, was 1,300l., while the Poor-law Commission—a subordinate office to that of the right hon. Baronet, required 4,900l. for postage. It would appear from that estimate, that the clerks—the number of whom the hon. Member for Coventry complained of—had something to do. He was very glad he had not to read all the correspondence which led to such an amount of postage, but he could not understand how that amount should so far exceed that required for the Home Department.

Sir J. Graham

said the correspondence at the office of the Poor-law Commissioners increased every year, and when it was remembered, that it applied to no less than 580 unions in England and Wales, it was not remarkable that the cost of postage at the Home Office was insignificant when compared with that of the Poor-law office.

The Committee divided on the question that the sum be 20.385Z.:—Ayes 14; Noes 93: Majority 79.

List of the AYES.
Blackstone, W. S. Muntz, G. F.
Blake, Sir V. Napier, Sir C.
Chetwode, Sir J. Wakley, T.
Duncombe, T. Williams, W.
Fielden, J. Yorke, H. R.
Ferguson, Sir R. A.
Fitzroy, hon. H. TELLERS.
Grimsditch, T. Sibthorp, Col.
Hodgson, F. Pechell, Capt.
List of the NOES.
Acland, T. D. Gaskell, J. Milnes
A'Court, Capt. Gladstone, Capt.
Acton, Col. Gordon, hon. Capt.
Arkwright, G. Gore, W. R. O.
Baillie, Col. Goulburn, rt. hon. H. I
Baring, hon. W. B. Graham, rt. hn. Sir J.
Baring, rt. hon. F. T. Greenall, P.
Barnard, E. G. Guest, Sir J.
Barrington, Visct. Hamilton, Lord C.
Bentinck, Lord G. Hampden, R.
Bernard, Visct. Hardinge, rt. hn. Sir H
Boldero, H. G. Hardy, J.
Botfield, B. Hatton, Capt. V.
Browne, hon. W. Hawes, B.
Bruce, C. L. C. Hepburn, Sir T. B.
Buckley, E. Herbert, hon. S.
Busfeild, W. Hodgson, R.
Charteris, hon. F. Hope, hon. C.
Chelsea, Visct. Hope, G. W.
Clerk, Sir G. Horsman, E.
Colquhoun, J, C. Hughes, W. B.
Coote, Sir C. H. Hume, J.
Corry, rt. hn. H. Humphrey, Ald.
Cripps, W. Jermyn, Earl
Darby, G. Johnstone, H.
Denison, E. B. Jones, Capt.
Dickinson, F. H. Kemble, H.
Douglas, Sir C. E. Knatchbull, rt. hn. Sir E.
Eliot, Lord Langston, J. H.
Escott, B. Lascelles, hon. W. S.
Esmonde, Sir T. Lemon, Sir C.
Evans, W. Lincoln, Earl of
Flower, Sir J. Mainwaring, T.
Fuller, A. E. Manners, Lord J.
Marsham, Visct. Somerset, Lord G.
Mitchell, T. A. Stanley, Lord
Mundy, E. M. Sutton, hon. H. M.
Neeld, J. Tennent, J. E.
Norreys, Sir D. J. Thornely, T.
Peel, J. Tollemache, J.
Plumptre, J. P. Towneley, J.
Pringle, A. Trench, Sir F. W.
Protheroe, E. Trotter, J.
Richards, R. Vernon, G. H.
Ryder, hon. G. D. Young, J.
Scrope, G. P. TELLERS
Shaw, rt. hn. F. Fremantle, Sir T.
Smith, rt. hn. T. B. C. Baring, H.

Original proposition again put.

Captain Pechell

objected to the travelling expenses of the assistant commissioners. Now that the machinery of the unions was established, he did not know what mischief could arise from abolishing the commissioners altogether; they were now employed in endeavouring to corrupt the Poor-law guardians. If the House were averse to doing away with the commissioners and assistant-commissioners, he thought, at all events, that their number might be reduced. He should move that their number be reduced by one commissioner and two assistant commissioners, which would be a reduction from the vote of 4,100l.

Colonel Sibthorp

thought the minority in the last division a most respectable one; and as many of the opponents of the New Poor-law had since the division gone to dinner, he would put it to the hon. and gallant Member, whether it were prudent to risk a reduction of the numbers of the minority by another division?

Captain Pechell

would not divide the committee upon it.

Vote agreed to.