HC Deb 10 February 1844 vol 72 cc476-87
Sir J. Graham

As it seems to be the disposition of the House, that I should now proceed to bring forward the Poor-law Amendment Bill, and as I see the hon. Member for Finsbury, and the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton are both in their places, I will, before I state what are the provisions of the bill I am about to introduce, in the first instance, state certain provisions in a former bill which I do not intend to introduce in the present measure. The House will remember that the two hon. Members to whom I refer more particularly, object to the abolition of the Gilbert Unions, and they had stated, that the abolition without previous inquiry would be unjust. Now, I entertain a strong opinion, that it is for the public good, that the abolition of those Unions should be effected. Nevertheless as there is this difference of opinion concerning the propriety of abolishing them, I am perfectly prepared to go into an inquiry with respect to the operation of the Gilbert Unions in conjunction with the general law for the relief of the Poor throughout England and Wales, and inasmuch as those parties more immediately connected with the different unions court inquiry, I, on the part of the Government, am not disposed to refuse inquiry, and pending that inquiry it is not my intention to propose the abolition of the Gilbert Unions in the present bill. At some time before Easter, therefore, I shall be prepared on the part of the Government, to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the operation of the Gilbert Unions, regarding the result of that inquiry to be independent of the present measure. Having thus stated what the bill does not contain, which I hope is satisfactory to the two hon. Members, I will now state certain material alterations in the present measure as contra-distinguished from the former bill to which I referred, In the first place, I will refer to that portion of the existing Poor-law, which has long been the subject of much comment and of warm and excited feeling throughout England and Wales, I mean the operation of the bastardy clauses of the original Poor-law Amendment Act, as introduced in 1834. I am bound to state, that recent inquiry in Wales has proved to me that the dissatisfaction at the operation of the Poor-law in that district at least, and as I know also in many parts of the north of England, is connected with the operation of the bastardy clauses as they now stand. The House will remember that in 1834; as the bill was originally passed, a much more extensive alteration was contemplated than was acceded to by the other House of Parliament or than was effected, when the bill passed into a law. The bill, as it passed the House of Commons, absolutely put an end to the power of making orders for relief in cases of bastardy upon the putative father. The principle, as enunciated in the report of the commissioners on which the bill was founded, proceeded on the assumption that throwing the whole burthen on the female would operate as a restraint on immorality, be conducive to chastity, and lead to a diminution of the number of illegitimate children. The bill, as sent from this House, gave effect to that principle, and it, therefore, conferred no power for making orders for maintenance on the putative fathers of bastards. Much discussion took place in the other House of Parliament, on the propriety of giving full effect to that principle, and the modification was there suggested, that no power should be given to the magistrates in special sessions to make orders as theretofore in cases of bastardy, but that this power should be reserved to the magistrates in Quarter Sessions, with some limitations as to evidence, and with still further limitations as to the effect of the order. Until 1834, the magistrates in Special Sessions, on the oath of the mother only, and without corroborative evidence, were able to make these orders. The bill, as it passed in 1834, gave the same power to the magistrates in Quarter Sessions, but imposed the necessity, before the order could be given, of having testimony corroborative of the oath of the mother. The effect of those orders, before 1834, was to give a remedy against the goods and the person of the putative father; but the Act of 1834, took away the remedy against the person, and gave it against the goods only,—so the law stood until the year 1839.I am bound to say, that from the first enforcement of that act, public opinion was divided as to the policy and fairness—not to say the humanity—of its provisions. It was said, that it was most unjust to impose the burthen on the weaker vessel, the female, when the father, who was better able to bear it, should practically be almost exempted from it, and I am bound to say, that I think public opinion never coincided in that provision of the Act. My noble Friend, the Member for Monmouthshire, felt this so strongly that in 1839, he proposed a measure which essentially modified the provisions of the Act of 1834. He restored to the magistrates in Special Sessions the power of making orders; and as the law now stands under the Act of my noble Friend, magistrates at Special as well as at Quarter Sessions have the power, subject to the provisions relative to corroborative evidence, of making orders for maintenance against the goods of the putative father, but neither at special nor Quarter Sessions, can orders be obtained affecting his person. Now, even this alteration in the law, large and important as it was, and approaching so nearly to the law as it stood before 1834, I am bound to say, does not satisfy public opinion, and there is still a very urgent cry that there is a necessity for some further alteration in the law of bastardy. From the accounts which have reached me of the causes of the disturbances in South Wales, I have undoubted information that the present state of the bastardy law is deeply felt in that district, and my opinion being called to this state of the law, it became necessary for me to decide what further alteration it would be expedient to propose. I do not think, after the consideration I have bestowed on this subject, that any change short of reverting to the law of bastardy as it stood previous to 1834, will satisfy public opinion, or conciliate public feeling. Now, to the state of the law as it then stood, I have an insuperable objection. I have, therefore, given the subject my best consideration, and by the Bill which I now ask to introduce I propose to make a great and material alteration. I propose to relieve the Poor-law entirely of the whole weight of its connection with bastardy. I propose that the mother of an illegitimate child shall be placed exactly in the same condition as a destitute widow, and that a parish officer, as such, shall have no interest or concern whatever in the question of an order of maintenance; but following the analogy of the law of Scotland, that as between the mother of a bastard child and the putative father, there shall be a summary process before two magistrates, I propose that the mother shall have power to make application to the magistrates within six months of the birth of the child, for some maintenance as against the father;—that the maximum sum to be granted shall be 4s. a week, and that the order shall be binding on the putative father until the child attains the age of thirteen years. I select that age, because it is the age at which in the Factory Bill the line of demarcation is drawn between children and young persons, and is I think the period at which the child is first released from the emancipation of parental control. I propose also, that the order against the putative father shall be signed as before the Act of 1834, and that it shall be binding not only against the goods but against the person also. I think in the present state of the House when I am introducing the Bill almost without notice, it would not be wise to go into the policy of this change. It is a great change I admit, but on the whole I am prepared in argument to defend both the policy and humanity of the proposition. I rest much on the example of the law of Scotland on this subject, and I hope and believe the change will be satisfactory to the public feeling. I am quite sure it will relieve the Poor-law of an immense weight of odium, and on the whole be conducive to the welfare of the poorer classes. I therefore sincerely trust that it will become the law of the land. [Mr. Hawes.—Will you, before the order is made, require any corroborative evidence?]—I propose that the mother, in claiming a remedy, shall produce some corroborative evidence. I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the inquiry, because I think that very important. I have now mentioned one important alteration, and will therefore proceed to state another. I am sorry to say that recent experience in this metropolis and in large cities has proved that the most cruel hardships are sometimes inflicted on the most destitute persons, while the question of settlement is pending. They are driven from one police office to another, from one workhouse to another; and frequently, even in the most inclement season, many persons are obliged to sleep under the arches of bridges or porticoes, or in the parks, and are thereby exposed to hardships and privations hardly consistent with the safety of life. I feel that for this state of things some legislative remedy is necessary. The House will perhaps remember that on a former occasion I proposed that children brought up in workhouses should have district schools established for them in the metropolis and in other large towns. I now propose to add to that portion of the Bill a provision for the establishment of district asylums by a combination of the Unions in the metropolis, and I mean, that these district asylums shall, under certain regulations, be opened for the reception of every destitute person, for one night, at least. I propose that destitute persons during sickness, shall be maintained there at the common cost of the district, and that every destitute person desirous of going to an asylum for one night's lodging and for food night and morning shall be at perfect liberty to do so, and at liberty to depart in the morning, subject only to some task or labour of four hours'. [Mr. Hawes.—That is the present law.] But the establishment of district asylums is a most important change, because at present they may be refused admission unless they can prove their settlement. I propose, however, that no question of that sort shall be a bar to their reception on the first night, and that a party returning for a second night shall also be admitted; but in case of a return beyond the second night, that then shall arise the question of settlement. I regret that, in consequence of not anticipating that I should be allowed to bring in the Bill to-day, I have no memoranda with me, or I would enter more fully into the details, and into the reasons which have induced me to propose this alteration of the law. Before concluding, I will state that I retain that portion of the former Bill, to which I think the hon. Member for Finsbury attaches so much importance—namely, an alteration in the scheme of parochial boards. I intend to retain the principle of plurality of voting, but I propose to alter the scale of proportion between those who are the proprietors and those who are the occupiers of premises. I also propose to abolish forced apprentice-ship altogether. These are the greatest alterations I contemplate, in addition to the modifications in the Bill of the year before last. I am much obliged to the House for permission to introduce the Bill this evening, for I think the sooner it is known to the public the better, because public attention will be directed to it; and the effect of the discussion out of doors will enable us to mature its details with greater advantage. As no other point of importance occurs to me, I will now conclude by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Poor Law.

Captain Pechell

observed, that in common with the rest of the House, he felt highly gratified by the statement which had just been made by the right hon. Baronet. He was rejoiced to find that a committee was to be appointed to inquire into the administration of the Poor Law in the Gilbert Unions, and he supposed that the right hon. Baronet, in the same spirit of frankness and fairness which distinguished his speech, would be prepared to carry into full effect any recommendation to which the Committee might arrive on that subject. He trusted, also, that the right hon. Baronet did not mean to abolish the Gilbert Unions, if the Committee did not make a suggestion to that effect. He was very sorry that the right hon. Baronet had not agreed to appoint a Committee to inquire into the Gilbert Unions two Sessions ago, when he had made a motion to that effect. It would have removed many difficulties in which the management of the poor in those Unions had since been involved. He hoped that the right hon. Baronet, as he had determined not to interfere in his present Bill with the Gilbert Unions, would tell him whether he intended to interfere with the management of the poor in towns possessing local acts. With respect to the right hon. Baronet's clause regarding the plurality of voting, he must express his regret that the right hon. Baronet had not abolished the plurality of voting altogether. He hoped that they had now turned over a new leaf; and, as the right hon. Baronet had already announced many concessions to public feeling, he trusted, that when the right hon. Baronet had inquired into the manner in which relief had been administered to the poor in the Gilbert Unions, he would find that the different boards of guardians had done their duty, notwithstanding the great difficulties which they had had to encounter. Their uncertainty about their fate had prevented many boards from making great improvements, which they would have otherwise commenced and carried through; and no wonder, when they were threatened every year with being annihilated. He hoped that no difference of opinion would arise between himself and the right hon. Baronet during the discussion in Committee upon these unions. And he should heartily concur in every attempt to make the Bill as perfect as possible.

Mr. T. Duncombe

felt satisfied that a great part of the country, and all those guardians who were rational and reasonable men, would concur in the propriety of the course which the right hon. Baronet was now prepared to adopt with respect to the Gilbert Unions. As he had him- self twice moved for an inquiry into the system adopted in the Gilbert Unions as a preliminary step to making any amendments on the New Poor Law, he could have no hesitation in expressing his satisfaction that such an inquiry was at length to be instituted. All that the guardians of those Unions required was to prove before the House what the nature of their system was. They thought that their system was more satisfactory to the ratepayers, and more humane to the poor, than the system pursued under the New Poor Law. If upon inquiry the right hon. Baronet could prove that his system was superior to theirs, they were ready, as they had formerly stated, to abandon their own system and adopt the other; but if, on the other hand, they should prove that their system was more satisfactory to the ratepayers, and more humane to the poor, he hoped that the House would not then for an instant think of interfering with their present state, or with the present law. He was quite certain that nothing would satisfy the feelings of the country more than the sort of alteration and relaxation which the right hon. Baronet was now at length about to make in the principle of the New Poor Law. Make that law accord with public feeling, and you will have no difficulty in conciliating to it the support of the country. He thought that the proposed alterations in the bastardy clauses were very valuable improvements of the law. Public feeling had long demanded that those clauses should be altered and amended; and he had only been sorry to hear that it was the turbulent and tumultuary, and he might almost say insurrectionary, proceedings which had occurred in some districts of Wales that had induced the right hon. Baronet to turn his consideration to that subject. [Sir J. Graham had said no such thing.]—No such thing! Why, he had understood the right hon. Baronet to say, that it was the information which he had received from Wales that induced him to make this alteration. With respect to the other alterations which the right hon. Baronet proposed to make in the law, and especially with respect to his plan for providing district asylums for the destitute poor, he would only say that he considered them of great value, and likely to be well received by the public. As, however, there would be many aged, infirm, sick, and decrepid persons among those who applied for shelter in these asylums, he trusted that the four hours' labour would not be exacted too rigidly from them. He would not, however, discuss that question now. He considered that the present Bill was a great relaxation of the old law. He thought, however, that an end should be put to the plurality-system of voting, and also to that of voting by proxy. The present was not the time for entering fully into the; but he must say, from what had been stated by the right hon. Baronet, that he thought his measure would prove extremely satisfactory to the public.

Mr. E. B. Denison

was prompted to offer his best thanks to the right hon. Baronet for the proposition which he had just submitted to the House; for he was quite certain when that measure should be fairly and fully understood by the public, that it could not fail to be received with the strongest marks of approbation. He could at any rate speak for the West Riding of Yorkshire, and he could assure the right hon. Baronet that the proposed alteration would render the operations and effects of the New Poor Law much more salutary than they were under the existing law. He did not exactly catch what the right hon. Baronet had said with reference to district schools for pauper children. Perhaps the right hon. Baronet would inform the House more distinctly upon that part of the subject. He would assure the right hon. Baronet that no communication which Her Majesty's Ministers had made since they had been in office would be received by the country with half so much satisfaction as would mark the passing of this Bill.

Sir W. James

said, whilst many hon. Gentlemen objected to this measure in its details and in its administration, he had all along objected rather to the principles of the Poor-law than to its details; and he was bound to say, that he still adhered to those grounds of objection which he had previously entertained. He thought the principles of the Poor-law were not sound, and that they went to attack and to undermine the very foundations of society. He felt, however, that the alteration now proposed by the right hon. Baronet would introduce a great amelioration into the bill. He wished, like the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Captain Pechell), to learn whether it were intended to interfere with existing local acts.

Mr. B. Ferrand

regretted that he was absent during the statement of the right hon. the Secretary for the Home Department, but he rejoiced to hear his hon. Friend the Member for the West Riding of Yorkshire (Mr. E. B. Denison) say that the people of the West Riding would be perfectly satisfied with the recommendations contained in the new law. [Mr. E. B. Denison: Satisfied as far as they go.] Yes, as far as they went. If they met with the approbation of the people of the West Riding, they would meet with his approbation also; but he was afraid they did not go far enough.

Mr. S. Davies

concurred in the favourable opinion which had been generally expressed with regard to the new bill, and was understood to state that the existing law had been very instrumental in causing the disturbances in South Wales. He wished to know what the bill proposed with regard to the law of settlement.

Mr. C. Berkeley

wished to ask whether, if the mother refused to affiliate a child, the parish were to have no authority to compel the affiliation?

Mr. S. Crawford

wished to know whether means had been provided to relieve the Irish poor, reduced to destitution in this country, from the dreadful oppression which they sometimes suffered upon being suddenly passed to their own country, where they had no settlement, after a residence of several years in England. Did the right hon. Baronet intend to introduce into this bill a clause which would remedy such grievances in future?

Mr. Henley

wished to know whether any, and what, provisions had been made for illegitimate children, and the mothers of illegitimate children.

Sir J. Graham

would endeavour to answer seriatim, and as succinctly as he could, the questions which had been put to him. First, with regard to the hon. and gallant Member for Brighton, he could assure the hon. Member, that he most sincerely rejoined in the prospect of having the support of the hon. and gallant Member, throughout any discussion which might ensue upon this measure. With regard to the local acts, he did not propose any alteration in the existing law, as far as they were concerned; and for the best of all reasons, viz., because by the judgment of courts of competent jurisdiction, all power which it was right they should have, was vested in the commissioners under these local acts. For that reason—he did not seek to dissemble it—in the present bill it was not sought to interfere with those acts. The hon. and gallant Officer seemed to think, whatever the report of the Committee might be, that the Government would be precluded from proposing any measure which it did not recommend. To prevent misunderstanding, he might state, that it was his desire to have the Committee fairly constituted, and the inquiry fully entered into. He had certainly formed an anticipation of what would be the result of their investigations; but he was not prepared to say, that the Government might not think it necessary to adopt measures in distinct opposition to what the Committee might recommend. He was glad at all times, to receive the support of the bon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. T. Duncombe); but he was sorry, that the hon. Member should have misrepresented—of course unintentionally—what he had said with reference to the bastardy clauses. The hon. Gentleman imputed to him, that he had admitted, that it was necessary for the people of this country by the violation of the law, or by turbulent conduct such as had characterized their proceedings in South Wales, to mark their sense of the law, before the attention of the Government would be attracted to their feelings on the subject. He begged to say, that until the riots in South Wales had been entirely subdued, and the majesty of the law completely vindicated by the trial by jury, Her Majesty's Government had not thought of directing their attention to the subject. What he did state, was, not only, that there was well-founded cause of complaint in South Wales, but that warm feelings also had been excited in the north of England, and throughout the country generally; the consequences of which were, numerous representations to the Government, which, he confessed, had had considerable effect upon his mind. He had felt, that public opinion was very strong upon the subject of the bastardy clauses, and he had, therefore, in deference to that opinion, deemed it necessary to introduce all the modifications of which the subject, he believed, was capable. Without reference either to South Wales or to the north of England, he was conscious that throughout the House, and also throughout the country, there was a feeling, that there was a hardship in the principle of the law; he meant to say, that it was felt to be unjust to throw upon the female the whole burthen of providing for the child; it was also felt, that such an enactment was in open violation of all manly feeling. These were the grounds upon which he had thought it expedient to reconsider that subject; but in doing so, he wished it to be understood, that he was not prepared to return to the ancient law with all its imperfections, his desire being rather to separate the subject of bastardy altogether from the subject of the Poor-law—a desire in which he thought the House would acquiesce. Several questions yet remained for him to answer—one from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. C. Berkeley), whether the parish would have power to compel the affiliation of a child when the mother refused to affiliate it? Decidedly not. The question of the destitution of the mother was to be viewed without reference to the parentage of the child, or under what circumstances the child was born. Her claims for relief in such a case would be decided in precisely the same manner as the claims of a widow with a child born in wedlock. In answer to the question of the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Henley), as to what provision was to be made for illegitimate children and the parents of illegitimate children, he had to remark, that their case would not be distinct from the general operations of the law with respect to destitute females and children for whom their parents or friends were unable to provide. In answer to his hon. Friend the Member for the West Riding of Yorkshire (Mr. E. B. Denison), he had only to say, that district schools and district asylums would be placed upon the same footing as had been proposed by the bill of 1842—that was to say, they would be established in the metropolis and in large cities; and in the country the diameter of the district which they included was not to exceed 15 miles. In answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthenshire (Mr. S. Davies), and in answer also to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. S. Crawford), he would state, that he intended shortly to introduce a bill, of which he had already given notice, which would materially alter the law of settlement. That bill would include the whole subject of the removal of Scotch and Irish paupers, which would fall naturally within its provisions. He was sure tire House would agree with him, that it was much better not to complicate those questions with each other by interlacing them to- gether, when each question of itself was already complicated enough.

Mr. James S. Wortley

having once represented the borough of Halifax could entirely confirm what had been said by his hon. Friend near him, that the people of the West Riding of Yorkshire would be much pleased with the alterations in the Poor-law: and, in common with his hon, Friend, he begged to express his best thanks to the right hon. Baronet for this bill. With regard to what had fallen from the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Duncombe), he must say, that he distinctly heard the right hon. Baronet mention the North of England as well as Wales, when referring to the representations which had been made to the Government with regard to the oppressive nature of certain clauses of the Poor-law Act. He rejoiced that these representations had produced their effect. Not altogether uniting himself with the hon. Member for Knaresborough (Mr. Ferrand), and those who went equally far, he was quite certain that the bill now proposed by Her Majesty's Government would be hailed with the greatest satisfaction by the country at large. There was one other subject upon which he (Mr. Wortley) had a strong feeling—he meant the separation of aged couples in the Unions. Might there not be some relaxation of that—the severest provision of the law—the separation of aged men and their wives? He was aware of the difficulty that might present itself with regard to the possibility of relaxing the law in the case of younger persons; but he did think that some means might be devised to relax the stringent provisions relating to aged couples, who were often so great a comfort to each other in the hour of sickness and affliction.

Leave given. Bill brought in and read a first time.