HC Deb 11 February 1846 vol 83 cc727-36

, in pursuance of notice, called the attention of the Members of the Government to the necessity of "immediately extending the powers of the Irish Poor Law Act, so as to enable the boards of guardians to dispense outdoor relief to persons in destitution, in the event of the poor-houses being filled." He was anxious to bring this matter under the serious and immediate consideration of the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department; for in his (Mr. Crawford's) opinion no subject of more vital importance could possibly engage the attention of Her Majesty's Cabinet. The Irish Poor Law differed from the English and Scotch in this respect, that under no circumstances whatever, let the emergency be ever so pressing, could outdoor relief be administered to the destitute. The English Poor Law Act invested the Commissioners with authority to accord outdoor relief under circumstances of peculiar and urgent emergency; and the Commissioners in their general orders had made special provision for the administration of assistance to the poor. For instance, it was specially provided that outdoor relief should be given in cases of sudden and serious necessity, and particularly in the event of the applicants being distressed widows; but it was greatly to be deplored that no such proceeding was warranted by the Irish Act. According to the provisions of that Act, it was not competent either for the Commissioners or the guardians, under any circumstances whatsoever, to administer relief outside the walls of the poor-house. This he considered a lamentable state of things, especially so in the present unhappy condition of Ireland. He now called the attention of Her Majesty's Ministers to this subject, and he was especially prompted to do so in consequence of having perused a Report which had recently emanated from the Inspector of Workhouses in Kells, from which it appeared that from 150 to 200 persons had recently made application for relief to the guardians of the Kells Union. They represented that they were in the deepest distress, and yet, so were the guardians hampered, that, no matter how urgent might be the destitution of the applicants, they (the guardians) had no power to administer relief to them, otherwise than by admitting them into the poor-house. Now, taking it for granted that each of those applicants had five in family (and the average was not an unfair one in Ireland), no less than 1,000 persons would have to be admitted into the house; but it was more than probable that the house could not afford accommodation for so many. It should be borne in mind, that under the Irish Poor Law Act, no applicant having a family could be admitted into the poor-house unless his family were admitted with him. This was an indispensable condition; and if some change in the law in this respect were not to be introduced, he was at a loss to think how or where sufficient indoor accommodation could be found for all the applicants who were likely to seek relief in the event of the apprehended scarcity occurring. He wished to call the attention of the House to the melancholy situation in which boards of guardians would be placed if they had multitudes of starving families crowding to their doors, and possessed no power of giving them relief. The Poor Law was notoriously unpopular in Ireland; but it would assuredly become still more so if, in the event of scarcity occurring, its provisions were not relaxed in some manner that would permit the administration of outdoor relief. He submitted it to the consideration of the right honourable Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department, whether it was not highly desirable that, under the present peculiar circumstances of Ireland, the Poor Law Act should not be amended in this respect.


The subject which has been introduced to the notice of the House by the hon. Gentleman is a matter of far too great importance for incidental discussion. I can assure him the condition of Ireland has for months engaged the most anxious consideration of Her Majesty's Government. I am not one of those who underrate the difficulties that now exist in that country; on the contrary, I do regard the condition of a large portion of the Irish population for the next four or five months, until the new crop of potatoes comes into use, with much anxiety. The difficulty is, I hope, but temporary; and, if the increase of next year be blessed by Providence, I hope the evil, such as it is, may be of a passing nature. I do, however, admit that for the next five months the difficulty will be great, and must be met by provident arrangements. With this view the Government has introduced various measures, all tending to increase the means of employment in Ireland. We have brought forward a Public Works Bill, advancing 50,000l., and placing that sum in the hands of Commissioners to be laid out in public works immediately as the demand arises. We have also introduced a Bill, which stands now as an order of the day, to permit the grand juries of Ireland immediately to distribute, under contract, 130,000l., anticipating in spring the presentments of the summer assizes; and to contract for other works, immediately to be proceeded with, to the extent of 100,000l. There is another Bill, which stands for a second reading to-day, in which we propose, not by loan, but by grant from the public purse, to contribute a considerable sum for making piers and harbours; and there is also proceeding through this House a Bill giving additional temporary facilities with a view to more general employment under the Drainage Act which passed last year. On that Bill we propose to engraft certain clauses for encouraging navigation in Ireland; and it is possible that in Committee of Supply we should feel it to be our duty, under the particular circumstances of Ireland, to ask a grant in aid of that object. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, with respect to the danger of approaching fever, which, unhappily, generally follows a period of scarcity in Ireland, the Poor Law Commissioners have made the most ample arrangements. The attention of Her Majesty's Government has been particularly directed to this point; and if that calamity should unhappily arise, we shall not be taken by surprise. I do not think I need at present go further; but if the necessity of Ireland should require it, the Government will be prepared to meet that necessity by a special measure suited to the particular occasion. What does the hon. Member now ask? He seeks to meet what I hope is but a temporary evil, by introducing in the law regulating relief in Ireland, which, after a full discussion, was deliberately adopted by the Legislature, a great change; and I am sure I do not misrepresent the fact when I state my firm belief that, had such a proposition rendering outdoor relief compulsory in Ireland, and extending it only to the aged and infirm, formed part of the Bill as originally introduced, the measure would not have received the sanction of the Legislature. This, I say, even if the proposition had referred only to the aged and infirm; but the hon. Gentleman now goes further, and asks, under the pressure of temporary circumstances, to extend outdoor relief to the able-bodied by means of a compulsory rate. We have had experience in this country of the danger, even under temporary pressure, of giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied. It constituted, in fact, a payment out of the rate in aid of wages, and led to a system of relief now called in England the labour rate, which of all the noxious offshoots of the Poor Law in this country, proved to be the most dangerous and the most injurious. We have had experience in this matter in England; and having that experience, I, for one, could not for one moment entertain a proposition which, even upon a general view of policy in reference to Ireland, I seriously and deliberately believe would introduce a most perilous and noxious system. If I could not on general principles consent to the adoption of such a course, much less could I be induced for a temporary object, and to meet what I hope is but a temporary emergency, consent to so great a change in the law. On the one hand I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not unprepared to meet the difficulties of this Irish scarcity, which I trust will be of short duration; but on the other we feel we should greatly betray our duty, if, under the existing pressure, we consented to favour a system of relief in Ireland which we believe dangerous in principle, and which our experience in England has shown to be surrounded with great difficulty, and pregnant with much mischief.


urged upon the Government the great importance of resisting, from the first, every attempt to introduce outdoor relief, or anything in the nature of a labour rate, in connexion with the Poor Law in Ireland. The law itself, after having encountered great difficulty and opposition, was only beginning fairly to operate in that country. The workhouses were not yet nearly full, notwithstanding the emergency to which the right hon. Baronet (Sir James Graham) had alluded; but should they become full, and even as the case stood at present, the burden of the poor rate was as heavy as those subjected to it could well bear. As the emergency of the potato failure in Ireland had been referred to, he would no further go into the question at present than to say that, while he deplored the occurrence of any failure, and desired every means to be taken to alleviate such distress as it might occasion, still he was bound to say, that he considered the extent of the failure had been greatly exaggerated. He found fault with the Government for having so long left Ireland without a resident Poor Law Commissioner, although there had been an understanding to that effect at the time of the passing of the Act.


observed that the wishes of the right hon. and learned Gentleman had been already anticipated by Government, for a resident Commissioner had just been appointed for Ireland.


believed that the new Commissioner alluded to by the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department was a very able gentleman, and one of high respectability; but he objected to the appointment because it was another illustration of a system which had been too long practised in Ireland—the system of giving to Englishmen and Scotchmen the offices which ought to be held by Irishmen. The hon. Gentleman who had preceded him had said that the law was a most unpopular one; and he (Mr. French) believed that it would be impossible to get one more so, for it would not have the effect of relieving any destitution in Ireland, and it was perfectly useless to meet any sudden emergency. The Government had admitted that nearly four millions of the people of Ireland were accustomed to depend upon the potato crop for sustenance. If that crop failed, where were those four millions to obtain relief? Surely not in the workhouses, which could not accommodate more than one hundred thousand. No doubt the proposition of the hon. Member for Rochdale for outdoor relief would entail vast expense on the country; but when the lives of four millions of human beings were at stake, surely no considerations of expense should deter the Government from discharging their duty towards the people. The right hon. Baronet had given himself and his Colleagues great credit for the measures they proposed taking, with a view to meet the approaching crisis. He felt himself bound to give them credit for the best possible intentions; but, after some inquiry, he was inclined to think that the result of the measures they proposed would scarcely be so beneficial as they anticipated. He gave the Government great credit for their anxiety to afford the people of Ireland employment at the earliest possible moment, by giving precedence to Irish Railway Bills; but even though they were passed with as little delay as possible, they would not confer the benefit they were intended to bestow, as nearly six months must expire after their passing before the necessary plans and sections could be got ready for the commencement of the works; in fact, nearly nine months must expire before the people of Ireland could obtain employment in these great national works. Then there were several clauses in the Public Works Bill to which he objected. He agreed with Lord Roden that that Bill would not be so beneficial as Her Majesty's Government seemed to anticipate. The labour of carrying out the provisions of the Bill was to be imposed on the Board of Works in Ireland, who had already more labour imposed on them than they could adequately perform, as the improvement of the harbours, parks, bridges, and lunatic asylums. They were the Commissioners of Kingstown harbour, Howth harbour, Donaghadee harbour, Ardglass harbour, besides which they had Portumna bridge under their superintendence, and were supervisors of lunatic asylums and the fisheries. In fact, they had already much more on their hands than any board that was ever created could perform with credit to themselves or satisfaction to the country. Why, then, throw more work upon them, or entrust them with more power? Besides, he could not understand the necessity of making these gentlemen into an operative body, and entrusting them with the execution of all the works connected in any way with the drainage of the country. There were several clauses in that Bill to which he should feel it his duty to move amendments, in order that it might have the effect intended. The original powers which were intended to be entrusted to the Drainage Commissioners should be given to that portion of the community whose interests were bound up with the soil they possessed. The Commissioners stated that they would give higher wages to those whom they employed than the generality of landowners; but he denied that this was so. And even if they did give a larger amount of wages, it was in the exercise of a most irresponsible power—that of laying out any sums of money which they might think fit. The hon. and learned Gentleman concluded by giving notice that upon the bringing up of the Report of the Committee on Drainage (Ireland) Bill, he would be prepared with a number of clauses which he considered would have a tendency to remove the objectionable portions of the measure.


differed from the hon. Member opposite with reference to the working of the Poor Law (Ireland) Bill. He believed that the Poor Law was at present working well in Ireland; and he felt bound to state that the prejudices which existed against the measure in that country had been greatly fomented in certain quarters. He believed that, notwithstanding all this agitation upon the subject, the prejudices were fast disappearing. He felt convinced that they did not exist on the part of those for whom the relief was intended. He was himself connected with four boards of guardians, and was enabled, therefore, to form an opinion upon the subject; and his opinion was, that this measure was rapidly approaching that state of perfection which it was intended by the Government it should reach. The matter was now before the other House, and he hoped it would receive their Lordships' best consideration, and that such measures as they considered expedient to adopt would be speedily sent down to this House, and meet with the approbation and support of hon. Members. He was astonished at the facility with which the rates had been collected for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of the Act. He never knew a period when it was so easy to collect the poor rate in Ireland as at present. There was nothing, he conceived, to justify them to calling upon Parliament for an alteration in the law, though there were some points that might be brought before the Committee of the House of Lords; but they were very trifling indeed. He thought that the jealousy entertained of the Commissioners rather tended to impede the working of the law; and one of the most prominent points of complaint made against them had reference to the manner in which they interfered with the different boards of guardians. He admitted that the Commissioners did interfere, and that with very little deference to the opinions of the boards of guardians; and he thought that was more to be imputed to their modus operandi than to the effect of the law itself. He felt authorized to say, that it was more to the mode of proceeding adopted by the Commissioners — which, certainly, he admitted to be offensive, and calculated to excite and generate misunderstanding which would not otherwise have existed—that objection was made, than to any effect resulting from the operation of the law. He agreed with the hon. Member for Roscommon, that the dominant disposition evinced by the Commissioners was extremely offensive, and he could not understand why they should thus quarrel with persons whom they ought to conciliate. He was sincerely disposed to carry out the law in every way; but he felt that every man was called upon to point out the discrepancies—and that was all they could be called—to which he alluded; and in referring to them, he addressed himself more to the Commissioners than to the House. The hon. Gentleman, when bringing forward his Motion, had overlooked one fact. It was plain if an increased levy was to be made, that it would be calculated to cause a great aggravation of the present suffering of the people; and he had no hesitation in saying, that it might tend to destroy a system which, day by day, was acquiring more of the confidence of the country. He attributed that increased confidence and respect in a great degree to the effect of Lord Eliot's Act, by which he thought a just line was drawn between the parties who were able, and those who were not able, to pay the cess. He thought that ought to have been done in the first instance; but the defect had been judiciously repaired, and that, he might say, served to overcome the main difficulty that had existed with respect to the raising of the rates.


could not, from what he understood of the Motion of the hon. Member (Mr. S. Crawford), go to the same length as the hon. Member. He believed that if, under the present circumstances, they were to give outdoor relief, it would not only he fatal to the existence of all the property of the country, but ultimately fatal to the poor themselves. He thought the course adopted by Her Majesty's Government, in the present state of affairs, was preferable to that proposed by the hon. Member. They had introduced an Act to which another hon. Friend of his (Mr. French) had objected, but in that objection he (Mr. O'Ferrall) could not concur. There was no doubt that the powers conferred by that Act were very great; but it was to be recollected that the landlords of Ireland had a sufficient period allowed to them to carry out those useful works themselves. They had sufficient time to apply the Act of Parliament, as had already been done in England, and to carry out those works in Ireland as had been done in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and other parts of England. The Act gave power to reclaim unreclaimed land, and then to sell so much of the improved land as would be sufficient to pay for the expenses of working such improvements. That was a law that was in existence in England for 300 years. The corporation of London had exercised that power; they took up large tracts of land, drained them, reclaimed them, and sold them. What was much better, with respect to Ireland, it was proposed to take a man's unreclaimed land, to improve it, sell part of it to pay the expense incurred, and give him back the remainder of the estate reclaimed. He was of opinion, that when the Government generously came forward to give the machinery that a public board afforded to drain and improve estates, their proposition ought not to meet such opposition; and he was sure his hon. Friend, when he took into consideration the advantage that was likely to be conferred on Ireland by such a measure, would be the last person in the House to object to it. With regard to the working of the Poor Law in Ireland, he must concur in a great deal that fell from the hon. Member for Donegal (Colonel Conolly). He approved of the manner in which the law was carried out in the county with which he (Mr. O'Ferrall) was connected, and the boards of guardians in that county discharged their duties efficiently. There certainly had been differences in some districts, but the difficulty had arisen from the conduct of the Commissioners. They appeared to have set out with an impression on their minds, which was much too common in the minds of the legislators and governors of this country generally, that every man in Ireland must be a distressed man. They set out with the view that every board of guardians was composed of jobbers, and that no man amongst them was to be believed. Thus it occurred that the difficulties experienced in the carrying out of the measures, were difficulties of their own making. He wished that the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department would use that power which the law vested in him, by exercising control over the Commissioners; and he (Mr. O'Ferrall) could assure that right hon. Gentleman that many cases might be made out which properly called for his interference. Now, there was an opportunity in the House of Lords for making out that case; and he hoped, when it was made out, the Government would be prepared to deal with it.


, in explanation, was understood to say that the assessment would not fall on the small holders, but on the large farmers and on the landlords. He also observed that he did not propose that the right should be given to the poor to seek outdoor relief, but simply that, when it was necessary, such relief might be given under the orders of the Commissioners.

Subject at an end.

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