HC Deb 26 February 1847 vol 90 cc529-38

On the Motion for going into Committee of Supply,


said: I have given notice to the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department, that I wished to put a question to him of great importance, respecting the present state of the poor law in this country. Every one in the House must have seen, this morning, in the columns of The Times newspaper, an extraordinary statement. It is not upon the subject-matter of the law itself; it is an opinion, given by a learned Friend of mine, as to the present state of the poor law, caused by the mode in which it has been administered. Two questions have been put to Mr. Matthew D. Hill, to which he has given answers. The points raised are, whether certain proceedings on the part of the Poor Law Commissioners were legal or not; and, if not legal, what remedies can be taken against them? Mr. Hill, as to the first point, says, if the case be as stated, the conduct of the Commissioners has been illegal; and next—which is a part of the opinion I am inclined to think unquestionable — if these illegal acts have been committed, the Commissioners may be proceeded against, either by indictment, information, or action. It must be known to the House, from the statements of the Poor Law Commissioners themselves, during the inquiry before the Andover Committee, that they have been guilty—I use the term only in its technical sense—of illegal proceedings, very nearly from the commencement of their official existence. They received, under an Act of Parliament, powers which they were to exercise as persons sitting together as a board; those powers were very great and extensive—powers that were never before bestowed by Act of Parliament. I was one of those who conceded those powers; I was perfectly willing to do so; but always with the safeguards and means of protection given by the Act itself. Among those safeguards was a provision that the three Commissioners should sit together as a board; that nothing should be done by them as individual Commissioners, but as a Board of Commissioners; it was provided, also, that their proceedings should not only be done in regular form, but be recorded by the secretary; that not only the act should be known, but the grounds upon which it was done; and, moreover, that these proceedings should be subject to the consideration of the Secretary of State, who is immediately amenable to this House. In the inquiry that took place before the Andover Committee, it became apparent to everybody that the Act had been violated by the Commissioners. We passed an Act of Parliament upon the most delicate question in administrative affairs that could be submitted to the House, guarded and fenced round with protective enactments and securities for its due administration, necessary for the benefit of the whole community. There was not a person in this House who took part in that discussion who was not fully aware of the dangerous ground on which we trod, and the difficulty of the experiment we were about to make. The Act was passed; then came the proceedings of the Commissioners, and under their administration the whole fabric of the law has broken down, placing us at the present moment in a worse condition than we were at the commencement of the investigation which led to the passing of the New Poor Law. Now, Sir, I wish to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman and the House to this: we are about to reconstruct the Act of Parliament; not only that, we are about to extend its operation in a still more difficult country to deal with—Ireland; and it is of the utmost consequence we should have a thorough understanding of the causes of its failure, whether it is to be attributed to some inherent defect in the law, or to some inefficiency in the parties applying it. We have at this moment on the Table an Order of the Day for going into something connected with the poor law in Ireland; but we do not know what has been the ordinary mode of proceeding with regard to the whole matter. I do not wish to say anything to hurt the feelings of the parties impugned; I hardly know them, save from the passing courtesies of life; but I am bound to state, that the imputations on them in their public capacities render it totally impossible for them to carry out the existing law. The law has broken down under them, and it is impossible at the present moment to say what will be the consequence. They may have actions and indictments brought against them all over England; and for the next six months those Gentlemen will live a life no one will envy them, if something is not done to protect them. I ask the noble Lord if we are leave this delicate and difficult subject in its present unsatisfactory state? We are in the last Session of the present Parliament; are we about to leave the whole subject unconsidered? Suppose I get as an answer, we are not; yet the noble Lord must be aware, this question cannot be considered in the ordinary way: the country asks for a calm, a considerate, and a thorough inquiry, and I hope the House will bear with me for a moment while I state why. Three of four gentlemen intrusted with the application of this law have taken upon themselves to violate the Act of Parliament—that is the only way I can express it. Under these circumstances I want to know if the British House of Commons is prepared to enter on a discussion of the law for the purpose of extending its operation in Ireland without a previous consideration of all the extraordinary circumstances connected with the administration of that law? Before we pass an extension of the poor law for Ireland, we ought to inquire into the efficiency of the machinery for its purpose. What has taken place in Ireland in the last six months? I ask the noble Lord if, during the last six months, he received any information from the Irish Poor Law Commissioners as to the failure of the potato crop; or did they offer any suggestions for meeting the difficulty? If not—and I suppose he did not, because nothing has been laid on the Table of the House—then I say the Irish Commissioners have not discharged all the duties of the office for which they were appointed. In the present state of affairs in Ireland, it was their duty to have suggested some means of meeting the extraordinary difficulty. We ought not to enter on the extension of the Irish Poor Law without a full inquiry into the whole question how it has been administered. I admit the principle of the poor law, as instituted by the last Act of Parliament; but I want a full and unbiassed inquiry into the cases of its failure, for unfortunately I am obliged, in spite of my previous opinions, to confess it has been a lamentable failure, whether it must be attributed to the law itself, or to the individuals administering it. I believe, in my conscience, it is not the law; the law, ably carried out, would have fulfilled all the intentions of the Legislature? But the persons employed to administer it have not proved equal to the task intrusted to them, and thus the failure has occurred. I want, therefore, to know in what position the question is at present? I am prepared, if the House will give me encouragement, to move for a Committee of Inquiry; but I hope the Government will undertake to do it, and take into consideration some mode of preventing the litigation that may arise. I hope, also, to hear some statement as to the course to be pursued in the House on the poor-law measures in progress for England and Ireland. At the present moment we do not know what we are to discuss. A short time ago the noble Lord put off the Irish Poor Law Extension Bill; at the present moment we are in the dark as to the reconstruction of the English Commission. It is the duty of the Government to tell us what it is actually about to propose; and we ought to base all our legislation upon a full investigation into the administration of the law both in England and Ireland. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will tell us he is prepared to enter upon that full, fair, and unbiassed inquiry.


said: In reference to the first part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's observations, I think it right to state the course the Government has pursued. Upon receiving the report of the Committee appointed to inquire into the management of the Andover Union, I addressed a letter to the Poor Law Commissioners, calling on them to state to me the mode in which they conducted the business of the office. I received a full report on the subject; and that report was referred to the law officers of the Crown, my hon. and learned Friends the Attorney and Solicitor General. The result of that reference to the law officers of the Crown, to say how far the proceedings of the Commissioners had been in accordance with the law, was certainly not such as to lead the Government to doubt their legality; and I do not think the Commissioners will be subjected to those indictments and vexatious legal processes the hon. and learned Gentleman apprehends. As far as Her Majesty's Government are advised, there is no reason to apprehend such proceedings; nor can I admit to him that the law itself is in abeyance, for ever since I have had the honour to hold the seals of office, I have always found the Poor Law Commissioners most attentive and diligent in the discharge of their duty, which, I believe, has been ably and efficiently performed. With regard to the latter part of the remarks of the hon. and learned Gentleman, I certainly should have thought he had been aware of what passed in the House on a former occasion. My noble Friend stated, very early in the Session, his intention to move for a Committee of Inquiry into the Law of Settlement; he stated, also, that it was not the intention of the Government to advise Parliament to pass the renewal of the Poor Law Commission this year, but that he should submit a plan for that Commission to be substituted for the present one. The hon. and learned Gentleman has pressed on the attention of the House the necessity of applying the poor law to Ireland; yet he now comes down and urges the expediency of deferring that measure till we have gone through a long and protracted inquiry in a Committee up stairs. I do not concur with the hon. and learned Gentleman, that this would be a wise, a prudent, or expedient course. The hon. and learned Gentleman does not seem aware of what has been done: my noble Friend, feeling the reasonableness of the opinion, that before any extension of the poor law is made in Ireland the House ought to be in possession of the plan of the Government as to the Commission, has therefore moved for leave to bring in a Bill regulating the future administration of the poor law in Ireland, which will be in the hands of hon. Members immediately—at all events in time to be considered before the 8th of March, the day now fixed for the discussion of the Irish Poor Law. The Government will then be prepared, on its own responsibility, to submit to the House a measure which they have, after mature consideration, thought right to propose as a substitute for the existing system of poor law administration, and Parliament will decide if that substitute is deserving of approval.


called the attention of the right hon. Baronet to another very important document, containing the evidence of the Poor Law Commissioners themselves, before the Committee which had been expressly appointed, and which had inquired into their conduct. That evidence furnished a complete proof that every act of the Poor Law Commissioners in the year 1841 had been illegal. There was not one member of the Committee who was not prepared to admit that; and when they were pressed to condemn the Poor Law Commissioners, their answer, and the only reason why they had not done so, was, that it had not been directly submitted to them to make any report upon the conduct of the Commissioners. He had concurred in that view; he had gone into the Committee with a firm determination not to touch upon the conduct of the Commissioners except in one single case—the course pursued by the Commissioner Lewis himself; and it was only after great difficulty that he was admitted, and that the whole question, as concerned him, was gone into. He rested his assertion upon that evidence, and every hon. Member was in a position to examine it. Mr. M. Hill had given an opinion on the Andover case; and if he gave another opinion on the report of the District Asylums Committee, he would find some facts telling still more strongly against the Commissioners. The Commission stood condemned, on its own evidence, as utterly illegal, and as having acted contrary to the provisions of the Act under which it had been appointed. It was proved that day by day the Commissioners had conducted their business in an irregular and in an illegal manner; that they transacted business without calling in any secretary to record their proceedings; and that consequently there was now no access to any official memoranda of those proceedings. He thought it behoved the Government to take up the question, and to institute another inquiry to satisfy themselves. It was too much to allow such a subject to stand over so long, when, if not by the whole, at least by the greater portion of the community, the Commissioners were suspected and censured. The Government should long ago have stated to the House what change they purposed making. He would have been perfectly satisfied when he brought forward a Motion condemnatory of the conduct of the Commissioners, if the right hon. Gentleman had declared that the question would, without delay, be considered and determined on. He was, therefore, not at all surprised at the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Roebuck), when they were about to extend the poor laws to Ireland, hesitating to confide the administration of those laws to the Gentlemen who hitherto had perverted their trust. He did not wish personally to complain of any one of the Commissioners. He knew them all by name, and some of them intimately, and he certainly believed they were at all times anxious to do their duty. They had undoubtedly proceeded on a mistaken view; but this did not make their acts loss culpable. He had done everything in his power to support the poor law, and he was still ready to maintain the correctness of the principles on which it had been passed. The system had fallen into odium because of gross mismanagement; and it was now incumbent on the Government, in consideration of the importance of the subject, to explain the changes which they proposed to make, and, if any doubts existed of the propriety of the conduct of the Commissioners, to have those doubts removed at the very earliest opportunity.


understood that the Poor Law (Ireland) Bill had been postponed principally because the Government had in view some alterations in the law relative to the important subject which had been brought before the House. That intention, he concluded, had undergone no change; but as there had been given several notices of amendments of the Irish Bill, there would probably be some confusion in dealing with the laws of the two countries, or in proceeding with either law separately. The hon. and learned Member for Bath had stated distinctly, at the beginning of the Session, his opinion was that the English poor law should be extended to Ireland. He had since weighed well that question; he had carefully examined the suggested amendments; he had watched the temper of the House in reference to the Bill; and he did not hesitate to say, expressing simply his own individual sentiments, that, after the experience he had had of the working of the poor laws in England and Ireland, he should have now no objection to apply the English law, letter by letter, to Ireland. He did not say that it would be the very best law for Ireland; but, taking into consideration all the circumstances of the case, and remembering what had been the statements made in that House, he was anxious, as an Irish proprietor, to put himself fairly before the people of England, and to declare, if any hon. Gentleman would bring forward such a proposition, that he would give to it his best support. He did not ask for the English poor law as it had been carried in some instances into operation; he did not ask them to treat Ireland bonâ fide as they would desire to treat any county in England. There were great differences between the conditions of the two countries; and he should be prepared to show—not in any spirit of hostility to the poor of Ireland, for he was far from denying their title to relief—that great disadvantages would result to the Irish poor, if the Bill were passed in the exact shape in which it had been introduced.


did not think that was the proper occasion to discuss the merits of the general poor law, or the differences between England and Ireland in respect of that law; but he might correct the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Roebuck), who had fallen into an error in supposing that there were at present different boards for the administration of the poor law in England and in Ireland. There was but one board and one set of Commissioners for both; but latterly one of the Commissioners had been resident in Ireland. His object in rising was to ask the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) when the Bill which the noble Lord obtained leave to bring in on Monday last, for the constitution of a new poor law in Ireland, would be presented to the House, and in the hands of Members? and further, whether the noble Lord still meant to proceed with the Irish measures, namely, the Landed Property and the Poor Law Bills, on Monday the 8th of March?


Before answering the question of the right hon. Gentleman, I would like to say a word or two in reply to what fell from the hon. Member for Montrose. The hon. Gentleman seems to have mistaken the purport of what fell from my right hon. Friend (Sir G. Grey). The hon. Gentleman seems to suppose that these reports of the District Asylums Committee, and next of the Andover Union Committee, were entirely neglected by the Government; and that the Government stood by, as if it were a matter of indifference to them whether they should take any steps in the matter or not. Now, what my right hon. Friend stated was this: that immediately after the resolutions of the Andover Union Committee had been reported, the Government, in the first instance, called on the Poor Law Commissioners for a statement of the mode of transacting the business of the Commission; and that their answer, which was of considerable length, referred to all which had been stated in the District Ayslums Committee, as well as to what passed in the Andover Union Committee, and went into details as to the manner in which it had been customary to transact their business. My right hon. Friend thought it his duty to inform the law officers of the Crown of that statement, and to ask whether the mode of doing business as described by the Commissioners was in conformity with the law. I own it struck me, when there was a doubt about it, that no better course could be taken than applying to, and ascertaining, from those eminent authorities, the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, whether the Commissioners were proceeding in conformity with the law. Their answer was, that it was not necessary to do anything more than to require from the Commissioners some further explanation of their mode of conducting their business, so far as referred to their acting legally; and I confess I am not at all convinced, either one way or the other, by seeing in many newspapers an opinion, signed by M. D. Hill, that the legal opinions received by the Government are not correct. This, in the first place, is a mere anonymous case, stated by somebody, on no sort of authority whatever, referring, not to the report of the Parliamentary Committee, but to the notion of this anonymous gentleman of the mode in which the Commissioners conduct their business, and asking if that mode was in conformity with the law. Then there comes the opinion of Mr. M. D. Hill, a different opinion from that which the Government has received, setting forth that the Commissioners do not seem to have acted in conformity with the law, and could not have proceeded thus irregularly without being conscious that they were not acting legally. That, certainly, is a great deal for a counsel to take upon himself to declare. I will not say whether he is right or not, or whether he has interpreted the law rightly or not, in stating the Commissioners did not endeavour, at least, to conform to the law and to their duty. So far as to the legality of the proceedings of the Commissioners. With respect to the measures to be taken in future, I stated at the commencement of the Session what is the species of administration which we propose for the future administration of the poor law in England. I have not been enabled to bring this measure before the House, and I think the House is itself the best judge how far it has been possible to do so. I submit, that, with the various and urgent measures, the suspension of all duties on the importation of corn, the admission of sugar into breweries and distilleries, the great project introduced by the noble Lord respecting railways in Ireland—which we had under consideration upon all order days, which are the only days the Government had to command—it would have been imprudent in me if I had endeavoured to force the House into a discussion of the poor law. As regards the alteration of the poor law in Ireland, I do hope to be able, to-night, to lay upon the Table of the House a Bill which will regulate the administration of the Poor Law Commission. I should like to propose, to-night, to go into Committee pro formâ on the Poor Law (Ireland) Bill; but as it would, in all probability, be late before I could have an opportunity, it will be better to postpone doing so to the first thing on Monday. In moving to go into Committee pro formâ, I shall state the substantial alterations we purpose making in the Bill as it is now before the House. I will then move that it be printed, and that the Report be received on the 8th of March. The Bill for granting loans for the improvement of land stands first on the 8th of March; but I will propose to go into Committee on that Bill, to carry it through Committee, and then to go into Committee on the Poor Law (Ireland) Bill. We can then proceed with the third reading of these Bills at the same time. That is the course I wish to take, and I do not think there can be any opposition to it.