Sir W. James
rose to solicit information from the Government with respect to an important subject, on which statements had recently appeared, to the effect that a practice existed in some portions of the eastern counties of the following character:—It was alleged, that when a poor man applied for Poor Law relief, it was refused him unless he could produce certificates from all the farmers of his parish of his having accepted all the work that was offered him, and that if it appeared that he had declined any work, at whatever wages it might have been offered, he was liable not only to a refusal of relief, but to committal by justices of the peace under some clauses of the 20 Vagrant's Act. He wished to know if the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Home Department were aware of such a practice; referring as it did to the employers interested in the obtaining of labour at the lowest rate, the amount of remuneration for which men should be compelled to work on pain of deprivation of relief, and of liability to imprisonment?
§ Sir James Graham
must decline answering as to certain statements that might have appeared in the Times. But he was prepared to answer the question of which the hon. Member had given notice—Whether it be true that the system of denying relief altogether to the poor, except upon the production of a certificate stating that the farmers of the parish had no work to give the applicant, signed by them, be prevalent in the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk, and particularly in the union of Haverhill?In consequence of the notice thus given he had availed himself of the opportunity for inquiry, and he had to answer that in the counties alluded to, generally speaking, there did not, he believe, prevail such a practice. There was no such union as that of Haverhill, but there was a parish of that name, and he believed there were some adjoining parishes, in which the practice had arisen, of requiring parties applying for relief to produce the certificate referred to. Until the matter had been brought before the House, any such practice had been entirely unknown to him, and he had heard of it with extreme regret. It was a restriction on the terms of relief not recognized by law, and harsh and unjust to the applicant. He was exceedingly grieved that such a system should have arisen. But the Poor Law Commissioners, who had hitherto heard of no complaints on the subject, would give directions to discontinue the practice; which, as it ought never to have grown up, would not be extended, but as he hoped and believed, would be utterly suppressed.
§ Mr. Gibson
wished to inquire whether, the right hon. Baronet having asserted that incendiarism in the eastern counties had not been to any great extent the work of the peasantry, but had been produced by perambulatory incendiaries, he would be prepared to assent to a commission of inquiry into the condition of the agricultural poor in those counties, and the causes of the recent incendiarism? If so, he would be ready to move an Address to the Crown for such a commission.
Lord J. Russell
had understood there were some prisoners committed for trial at 21 the coming assizes on charges of arson in those counties. Was the right hon. Baronet aware of such being the fact? And, if so, did he not expect some disclosures in those cases of the circumstances under which the alleged offences had been committed.
§ Sir J. Graham
was obliged to the noble Lord for having put his question. It was true that there were now several persons awaiting their trial on charges of arson in those counties; and beyond all doubt these trials conducted before judges most competent to elicit and investigate evidence, would cast considerable light upon the causes of recent incendiarism. He had been untruly represented as having said that it had been produced exclusively by parties perambulating the country for the commission of the crime. He had stated his belief that the great body of the peasantry were not tainted by the guilt of this cowardly offence, and that, generally speaking, it was to be traced to personal malignity on the part of labourers acting under an impression of personal injury. As to the issuing of a commission for inquiry, it was impossible for him, without any notice, to answer as to what might or might not be the future intention of the Government. As at present advised, assuredly, he anticipated important information from the coming trials, and was indisposed to assent to the issuing of a special commission of inquiry.