HC Deb 20 January 1847 vol 89 cc172-7

moved for a return from each poor-law union and parish in England and Wales of the number of nonresident families and persons who were in receipt of relief on the 26th day of August, 1846, distinguishing those who have since become chargeable to the unions and parishes in which they were residing at the time. He said that this Motion had become necessary in consequence of the extraordinary operation of the Poor Removal Act. Its working in the district with which he was connected, and he believed throughout the country, had caused utter confusion, and the greatest dissatisfaction to all parties, except what were called the legal authorities. He believed its object was a humane one, but, owing to the decision given by the Attorney and Solicitor General, very great mischief had been done by it throughout the country. He was told at the time that he was not humane for voting against the Bill; but he would now ask those who supported it, what they thought of the operation of a measure which only fed the lawyers and those who preyed upon the plunder of the country? A number of persons, being non-residents, had been most cruelly treated by the poor-law unions in country places, which by common consent had joined together, suspended the relief of the nonresident poor, and thrown them on the parishes with respect to which they had a residence. Some parishes with a more humane feeling, agreed not to proceed on the Act at all; but then they had to provide both for their non-resident poor, and also for the poor thrown back upon them. In the borough with which he was connected there were 1,110 families, consisting of 3,000 persons, who were relieved out of doors at a cost of 298l. per week; and out of this number there were 523 families, consisting of 1,452 persons, who had been thrown on the parish in consequence of the operation of this Act, and the decision of the Crown lawyers. He thought it would have been more fitting to have made reference in the Speech from the Throne to an Act like this than to the Local Courts Act.


seconded the Motion with pleasure: it was his intention to bring the subject fairly before the House on Friday, in the shape of an Amendment to the Motion of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) for a Select Committee on the Law of Settlement, and to submit to the House a proposition for the immediate repeal of this Bill, which was at the present moment doing the greatest mischief throughout the country. He held in his hand a petition from one of the parishes in the county with which he was connected—a parish greatly injured by the operation of this Bill; he believed in a few days he should have petitions from almost every parish in that county. The petition related to that which he considered by much the least important portion of the grievance, namely, the additional burden thrown upon the ratepayers; the more important portion by far was that which had just been adverted to—the cruel injury inflicted upon the poor themselves. Those who ventured to suggest objections to this Act when it was under discussion as a Bill—and he had been one of the number—had no conception that the mischief would be so great as it had proved. He felt that he should not do his duty if he did not take the very earliest opportunity of submitting to the House the propriety of repealing the measure. If it should be said that this was one of the subjects to be submitted to the proposed Select Committee, he must reply, that during its deliberations these grievances ought not to continue; and, therefore, agreeing entirely in the propriety of the noble Lord's Motion for a full consideration of the Law of Settlement, he should venture to submit an Amendment, that the Select Committee should be appointed to inquire into the operation of the Act 9 and 10 Victoria, c. 66, as affecting the comfort and condition of the poor. He believed that in a very short time they would see that the mischiefs of this law were of such a nature that it would be their duty to recommend that it should not continue for another hour on the Statute-book without material alteration. The general subject of the law of settlement was one of great importance, and could not be very speedily determined. But every county Member, and the Members for all large places, could corroborate what he had said of the mischievous effect of the Act of last Session; they needed no report of any committee to make them acquainted with that which stared them in the face—a mischief arising from a statute which undoubtedly was passed with the most benevolent intentions.


had no objection to the returns being granted. As notice had just been given by the hon. Member (Mr. G. Bankes) that he would, on Friday, bring distinctly before the House the subject of the operation of the Poor Removal Act, by specific Motion, neither he nor the House would, perhaps, think him (Sir G. Grey) wanting in respect if he suggested that the matter should not at present be further discussed. On the Motion, on Friday, he should be prepared to state the course which the Government would adopt.


hoped he might be allowed to call attention to the great cruelty inflicted on the poor, especially in the manufacturing districts, by the conduct of the new poor-law auditors, who were acting under the direction of the Poor Law Commissioners. When he told the right hon. Gentleman what had occurred in his own parish, and added, that it was not an isolated fact, but occurring in every large manufacturing town in Yorkshire and Lancashire, he thought he should convince both the right hon. Gentleman and the House, that the Government ought instantly to interfere, and rescue the distressed operatives from the clutches of the Commissioners and their auditors. It had been usual, from time immemorial, in the parish with which he was connected, for the ratepayers annually to direct the constable of the town to relieve any case of urgent distress with which he met: for instance, if in the night time he found a person lying out of doors in the street, without the means of procuring a bed, he was to take that destitute person to a lodging-house, pay for his bed, provide him with victuals, and give him a trifling sum to pass him on the road towards his destination, whatever that might be. But, in spite of this leave given by the ratepayers, the auditor of the Keighley union had apprised the constable, that if he should again be guilty of any such offence, and dare to relieve a person under such circumstances, though he might be dying of want, the constable's accounts should not be passed, and he should pay the money out of his own pocket. The consequence was, that the poor were knocked about from pillar to post; they knew not where to fly for protection; the board of guardians told them they had now no authority—that they were worse used than ever at Somerset House—that formerly they had some control over the poor rates, but that now they had none. These auditors had literally given notice to the boards of guardians, that they would commence actions against them if they were guilty of the slightest act of charity contrary to the instructions from Somerset House; and there was a feeling now springing up in the north of England, that the poor had no means of escape from misery and starvation. He had frequently brought such things before the notice of the House; he did so with more cheerfulness now, because on occasions when the interests of the poor were being discussed within those walls, he had seen the right hon. Gentleman the present Home Secretary exhibit a feeling of humanity which, he was sorry to say, he did not see exhibited by the late Home Secretary. He felt convinced that the right hon. Gentleman would immediately take steps to inquire into the truth of the statement which had just been made in his presence; and if it should be denied by the Commissioners, the evidence of the constable himself should be forthcoming. When the right hon. Gentleman found the statement to be accurate, it was to be hoped he would put a stop to such cruelty and oppression.


rose to confirm the statement, that the conduct of guardians in some unions was driving the poor from one parish to another, without their obtaining relief; and at the same time to observe, that the greatest cruelties inflicted upon the poor during this very inclement season arose from the crass ignorance of boards of guardians, and their laziness in failing to make themselves acquainted with the provisions of the law which they were called upon to administer. There was no case of suffering such as the hon. Member had described, in which the guardians had not, under the present law, full power to grant relief out of the house. It had been the practice to refuse it, but there was no law to that effect. The Poor Law Amendment Act did not say one word about prohibiting out-door relief. There was an order issued by the Commissioners prohibiting it—[Mr. FERRAND: Is not that law?]—but that rule had appended to it certain exceptions, one of which included cases of sudden and urgent necessity. When that rule was promulgated, he went to the right hon. Gentleman the then Home Secretary, and remarked that the exception gave the guardians all the power which they could fairly wish to have, if they were to be allowed to construe the exception, and to say what was and what was not a case of urgent necessity. That right hon. Gentleman promised to consider and state publicly whether that was so; and after an interval of a day or two, he stated in the House that the boards of guardians were the only persons who had a right to construe and give effect to the words in question. What right, then, had the guardians to tell poor persons, reduced to necessity by the loss of the potato crop, three-fourths of their winter food, that they could not relieve them out of the house? He, in the union in which he was an ex-officio guardian, had carried a proposition to grant such persons out-door relief, and the Poor Law Commissioners had sanctioned every such act, and refused to interfere with the discretion of the board of guardians. It was most important that at the present time of distress, with the apprehension afloat that it was likely to be increased between this and next harvest, the boards of guardians should know their power, and that the ratepayers should understand that if a board did not exercise this power, the board and not the Commisioners ought to be blamed for any misfortune or distress which was the consequence.


thought the hon. Member (Mr. Escott) mistaken in his law. It was right that boards of guardians should know their powers, but it was right also that they should know the powers given to the auditor. The auditor could disallow charges for such relief as this, and make the relieving officer pay them out of his own pocket. He (Mr. Spooner) knew several instances where that had been done; he knew one in Worcestershire, where, in a case of distress, the guardians ordered immediate relief to a family, and the auditor struck the item out, and the relieving officer had to pay it out of his own pocket. But it was not the intention of the framers of the poor law, that one man should have the power of refusing to allow relief to be given, when the board of guardians had thought it right that it should be given; and if the House were aware of the facts as they occurred, they would not suffer the law to remain as it was.


believed that the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Escott) had correctly stated the law, and that the auditors had no power to refuse confirming the orders of the board of guardians. In the Worcestershire instance, the auditor must have acted illegally, and he had rendered himself liable to penalties. But the poor were suffering under these illegal acts; and the noble Lord should remember, when he came to make his statement on Friday, that these were abuses for which the present law had afforded facility, and the recurrence of which should be provided against.

Motion agreed to.