HC Deb 30 June 1847 vol 93 cc1059-71

, in calling the attention of the House and the Government to the Third Report of the Relief Commissioners in Ireland, delivered on the 29th instant, observed that it contained statements and allegations deeply affecting the national honour. The Commissioners alleged that although in some instances the relief committees might have discharged their duty property, yet in other cases they accused them of connivance with acts of the grossest fraud. The Commissioners alleged that —"demands had been made in a wholesale way by these committees for rations for a greater number of destitute than there were individuals in the entire population of the district; that this had occurred in several cases, and for thousands in excess;"—that "the Government inspecting officer had found no difficulty in striking off hundreds of names that ought not to have been found on the lists, including sometimes those of servants, and men in the constant employ of persons of considerable station and property—these latter being frequently themselves members of the committees—and that in some cases, the very chairmen being magistrates, had sanctioned the issue of rations to tenants of their own of considerable holdings possessed of live stock, and who, it was found, had paid up their last half year's rent. The Commissioners further alleged that —"intimidation (a very common cause of abuses) had in some instances been openly encouraged by members of committees. He heard some hon. Members below him whisper that these cases were mentioned by the Commissioners as exceptional cases only; but he appealed to any one who had read this report whether the inference to be drawn from its general tenor was not that the Irish, as a people, must be the most corrupt and degraded on the face of the earth. Why, although the Commissioners had said something about "exceptional cases," yet, in another part of their report, they expressed the following general opinion, after saying that the object of the Act might have been attained with comparative facility if the agents had entered on the undertaking with earnestness and honesty of purpose:— We regret, however, to report that in very many districts such is not the case, and one result from the working of the measure appears to be manifest, viz., that for a general arrangement, a trustworthy local management, in most cases, cannot be ensured for smaller limits than those of a union. He was justified, then, in calling upon the Government to lay upon the Table of the House the evidence upon which the Commissioners had made these statements, so materially affecting the honour and character of Ireland. If the facts justified the general statement, then the truth ought to be publicly known. He sincerely hoped that the Commissioners had been misled by the statements of the agents who had been sent about in different parts of the country. He knew that in many cases young men put in authority for the first time had been so sent, and in the coxcombry of their new position had laid down their own opinions as those of the Government, and had spoken harshly of those who differed from them. The House ought to have information to enable it to separate the innocent from the guilty of those who were involved in these general accusations, and to enable those upon whom an unjust imputation rested to clear themselves. He had not brought forward this matter on the former reports of the Commissioners, because he had been assured by the Government that in future the reports should be more carefully prepared; but he now called upon the Government, as an act of common honesty and justice, to require the Commissioners to lay upon the Table of the House full extracts from their proceedings, in order that it might he seen how the Relief Act had been carried out in every electoral district in Ireland.


appealed to the names of the Commissioners who had signed this report, at the head of which stood that of Sir John Burgoyne, as guarantees for the good faith of that document. The only object of the Commissioners had been to lay before the House a faithful picture of the operation of the relief works, and the manner in which the Act had been carried into effect. He could by no means admit that the statement they had made contained anything like a general or universal censure on the gentry of Ireland for the part they had acted in carrying out the measure for the relief of destitution in Ireland. It was quite true they had stated, that in not a few instances their efforts had been thwarted by the want of co-operation, and sometimes by the encouragement of gross abuses on the part of those who ought to have been the first to discountenance them; but still they were put forward as exceptional cases. He himself, while on the one hand he had always vindicated the gentry of Ireland from universal and sweeping censure, yet, on the other hand, never denied that in particular cases such abuses had prevailed. But the Commissioners had made no such sweeping condemnation. First, with respect to one of the most important functions which the gently of Ireland had to perform—that of members of finance committees—the Commissioners had borne testimony to the creditable manner in which those duties had been performed. These finance committees had been very carefully selected—they were fewer in number than the relief committees; and of them Sir John Burgoyne and his colleagues said— The finance committees, composed of from two to four gentlemen of each union, have, with very rare exceptions, acted with zeal and intelligence, correcting in many instances errors of system introduced by the relief committees; but they cannot always control details requiring very accurate knowledge of the circumstances of persons mid families. That extract would show the anxiety of the Commissioners to do justice to the gentry of Ireland. They certainly went on to say, that in not a few cases the members of the relief committees, instead of co-operating with them, had thwarted them; but they were anxious also to state distinctly that so far from these cases forming the general rule, they were exceptional instances. They said— In enlarging on these unpleasant facts, we would beg that it may be understood that they are clearly exceptions, although sufficient in number to be deserving of notice, and to show in parts of the country a great want of the principles necessary for minute self-government. He appealed to Irish Members themselves whether they could deny that the report contained a true and faithful representation of the state of the country. The Commissioners had certainly had to contend with these exceptional cases; but it was very far from being true that the gentry of Ireland as a body had refused their co-operation. His hon. Friend had asked for a general inquiry into the operation of all these relief committees in Ireland, with a view of ascertaining who had and who had not performed his duty; but He could not advise the House to enter upon such an inquiry, nor could he hold out the hope that Her Majesty's Government would think it consistent with their duty, or advantageous to the public service, to enter upon such an inquiry. When he considered the ill blood, the criminations and recriminations, and all the evil effects which such an inquiry must produce upon Irish society, he thought that rather than embark upon it, some portion of abuse had better be borne. He regretted his hon. Friend should have thought that any affront was conveyed to the Irish gentry by the report, and hoped that he would be satisfied with his explanation.


did not know if the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman was satisfactory to the House; but he did know that it ought not to be satisfactory to those Gentlemen representing Irish constituencies, or who held property in Ireland. In fact, the statement of the right hon. Gentleman made matters rather worse than before. The report gave the House and the country to understand that gross instances—he must call it of swindling—were the rule in Ireland, and not the exception. Why, he must admit that the report was not written with much clearness; still, after detailing these instances of swindling, it went on to state that to such instances there were exceptions. Now, if he could construe the English language at all, he must understand this to mean that swindling was the rule, and uprightness the exception. He would therefore call upon the hon. Gentleman who had brought this measure forward, to make some substantive Motion for inquiry, with a view to have the men against whom such conduct might he proved removed from the list of the magistracy. He was of opinion, however, that on investigation it would turn out that these charges were, (in many instances, exaggerated; and he must say, that the selection of inspectors had been in general unwise and injudicious. In his own district officers of the army had been appointed—men who had just arrived from India, and who had not been in this country for the last twenty years; and these men were sent down to make reports upon the state of Ireland, and to act as spies upon the country gentlemen. He said, there was a system of shameful espionage exercised in Ireland, as was shown by the evidence given before Captain Wynne's Committee; and he might also refer to the report of Captain Norris against the priests of Tipperary, which had created a great sensation among the gentry, the priests, and the peasantry of that county. He regretted, that through inadvertence the name of an officer so honourable as Sir J. Burgoyne should have been appended to a report like the present; but he hoped, at all events, the hon. Gentleman would not allow this matter to rest where it was.


agreed with the other Members who had spoken, that the parties who were accused in this manner should have their names held up to the odium of England, Ireland, and Scotland. For himself, he was afraid that there was some truth in these reports. He could not believe that Sir John Burgoyne and the other hon. Commissioners would make such formal statements as these to the House of Commons, unless there were good grounds for them. There was a suspicion that jobbing prevailed to a great extent, and that justified the demand for information. He called upon the Government to give the names of those gentlemen who had put their domestic servants upon the lists for relief, or who had, for the sake of the next year's rent, put their own tenants upon the lists, although they had paid their rents and were in possession of property. Submission to these charges by the body of the Irish gentry would be a tacit admission of their guilt.


spoke as an Englishman, and he felt that this matter could not be so lightly passed over as his right hon. Friend seemed to suppose. The report contained charges of a most serious nature, affecting the whole body of the landlords of Ireland, whether in the north or the south. They ought not to be subjected as a body to so sweeping and general a charges From what he knew of Sir John Burgoyne. and the other Commissioners, be was convinced that those gentlemen would never have appended their names to a report, if they were not thoroughly convinced of its truth. Was it to be supposed, after the debates which had taken place in that House, and the public odium which at various times had been heaped upon Irish gentlemen, that they could sit down contented under these sweeping accusations? He feared, from what he personally knew, that there was much truth in these allegations, and that there were parts of Ireland where the gentry did not attend as they ought to the distribution of relief. When sums were voted to so large an amount for that purpose, the names of parties who so neglected the commonest duties of morality and humanity ought to be given. The whole body of Irish proprietors ought not to be subject to a sweeping imputation, but the names of those who had done their duty should be separated from those who, by their neglect of it, justly incurred public odium.


had recently been in Ireland, and bore testimony to the horrors that prevailed—horrors, of which fever was among the least: the people were pining away and starving by the road side. Their common mode of asking alms now was, "For God's sake do something for me, or I shall be found dead to-morrow." Looking at these horrors, he regarded the report of the Commissioners with some degree of charity. He did not lay the blame either upon them or upon the gentry, but upon the Government. In February last he had done all in his power to prevent the formation of this commission, and against passing such a Bill without defining what destitution was. He had contended to the utmost against the unfairness and injustice of leaving the responsibility of such a definition with the local authorities. There was now quite a scramble for relief. The Government had been guilty of a gross dereliction of duty, and ought to be condemned for that act. Then who were the Commissioners? With the single exception of Sir John Burgoyne, whose name could never he mentioned either in or out of that House without the highest respect, all the rest had ample employment for their time, without having the duties of such a commission entailed upon them. There was Mr. Redington, the Under Secretary—had he not enough to do? Next came Sir Randolph Routh, the head of the Commissariat—was not his time sufficiently employed? Colonel Jones, the head of the Board of Works—had he not enough upon his shoulders already? Mr. Twisleton, the Poor Law Commissioner—were not his duties sufficient to occupy his time? Last of all, came the head of the Constabulary—that olla podrida, mixing itself up with every matter in Ireland—he had surely enough to do in receiving underhanded reports from those who acted as spies, not only upon the gentry but upon the magistrates of Ireland. Although abuses might have existed to a great extent, the blame did not rest so much with the gentry as with the law.


said, that his noble Friend had thought fit to throw an imputation upon Colonel M'Gregor, with respect to his conduct, not as a Relief Commissioner, but as the head of police in Ireland. All he (Mr. Labouchere) could say was, that whenever his noble Friend should think proper to bring forward any charges against that distinguished person, he (Mr. Labouchere) should be ready to meet them. He believed, from communications he had had with persons of all classes, that his noble Friend would standalone in his opinion of the manner in which the police force of Ireland was managed.


protested against the censure cast upon the Government by the noble Lord: in circumstances of unparalleled difficulty and danger they had taken every step which could be expected. He did not, however, concur in the view taken by the right hon. Secretary for Ireland, and thought that when the character of a body of gentlemen was so seriously implicated, an inquiry ought to be instituted. Such an inquiry would rather tend to allay than to excite irritation; and it was most unjust that innocent persons should rest under an imputation, which, as it stood, affected the whole body. The guilty ought to be punished, and the country should know whether the allegations of the Commissioners were well founded.


I hog the House to consider for a short time what are the facts of this case. A body of Commissioners are appointed, with Sir John Burgoyne at their head, to whose merits every one will bear willing testimony—who have had imposed upon them a most arduous duty. They report that they are in superintendence of a system of relief which involves the distribution of upwards of two millions of rations daily, and that they have under them no fewer than 1,677 electoral divisions employed in giving that relief. And now let us consider whether those gentlemen, thus employed under the authority of an Act of this House, may not in the first instance feel it due to the Government and to the Parliament to state what are the obstacles which they have had to encounter in the performance of their duty. Having seen a great number of the reports which have been made to them, I am bound to say that I think their conduct has been most admirable, and that the obstacles which were thrown in their way after the first passing of the Act, by the apathy which was shown in many instances, and latterly by instances of something worse than apathy, are such, that they, the Commissioners, deserve very great credit indeed for the struggle they made to establish an efficient and systematic plan of relief, having to contend against such serious difficulties. I think it was duo in the first instance to truth, and in the next to Parliament, which had made such large and extraordinary provisions for the relief of the destitute, that they should plainly state whether the system which the Legislature had devised had been carried fairly into operation by the local boards under their superintendence. Do they (as the hon. Member for Weymouth and other hon. Gentlemen erroneously suppose them to do) state that the whole body of the landholders of Ireland, or that, generally speaking, the great bulk of those entrusted with the administration of relief, have abused that trust, or employed that relief in affording food to those who do not want it, or are not entitled to it—to their own tenants, servants, dependants, and retainers? Far from it. They have stated that in the 1,677 electoral divisions, several instances of abuse and perversion have occurred. Now, I am at a loss to think by what process of language you can maintain that "several" means the whole body, or even designates the generality of them. But not only do they use the word "several;" but, after stating the abuses which have occurred, they expressly declare that such cases are exceptions. They specially point to that fact, and clearly indicate their opinion that neither the whole body of landholders, nor even the generality of them, are obnoxious to censure. With regard to the finance committees, their praise is general, and without exception; but, judging both from the character of those gentlemen—from the unwillingness they have to give light credence to accusations—and from various reports which I have seen, I say that, relying on those authorities, I do most assuredly believe that there have been several instances of gross abuses; and while the House is given to understand that the system generally is going on beneficially, and that the Commissioners are satisfied that starvation has been prevented, or that at least the cases of starvation are now much rarer than they used to be, I think it is only just that the House should also have information that there are instances of abuses which have been obstacles in the way of making the Act universally beneficial. But then, some more hon. Members venture to say, if there be some instances of abuse, why not institute a general inquiry? I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Ireland was fully justified in saying that such a remedy would be worse than the evil to be contended with. The hon. Member for Cockermouth, who is at the head of the Clare committee, would not surely, after the experience he has had, propose a general inquiry extending over the whole of Ireland, to ascertain who have behaved well, and have attended sedulously on committees, distinguishing them from those who have neglected their duty, exhibited apathy, and been guilty of perverting the law unworthily. I do not think that from such an inquiry any good consequences could possibly result. It would be merely productive of ill-will and ill-blood, which would occasion more general confusion, and give rise to various counter-statements, in the midst of which it would be exceedingly difficult to ascertain the truth in particular cases. [Sir D. NORREYS did not desire a general inquiry. He wished the extracts from the local reports which justified the representation of the general report, to be laid upon the Table.] If those reports were produced in each instance, there would of course be complaints from the persons whose characters were impugned. They would ask for investigations in their respective cases; and it would necessarily follow that inquiry on an extensive scale should be instituted in every instance thus quoted—a proceeding which I cannot but think would be attended with very serious inconvenience. The hon. Member for Cockermouth is aware that thirty-two days have already been consumed in investigating one single case; and it is not difficult to foretell what the consequence would be, if a number of such inquiries were to proceed simultaneously, amidst all the confusion and contention of contradictory statements. There is one part of the report, however, in respect of which the Executive Government may fairly call for explanation, namely, that which conveys the charge that certain chairmen of committees, who are justices of the peace, have connived at the malappropriation of the public funds. The general question of the conduct of landholders and tenants is one on which I think it is impossible that we should enter; but in cases where a report is made to the Commissioners affecting any magistrate, I certainly do think it would be well not to lay any report at once before the House, but to send an extract from it to the magistrate concerned, with a view to further inquiry, and ulterior proceedings in the event of his answer not being satisfactory. Such a course would, I have no doubt, be highly advisable; but I cannot bring myself to think that a general inquiry, such as has been advocated by some hon. Gentlemen, would be equally advantageous. I protest against the idea that because some of the Irish landlords have been attacked, the entire body are entitled to call for an inquiry. I cannot agree, therefore, to any proposition involving a general investigation; but I am quite content that the conduct of those who are in the service of Her Majesty should be made matter of reference on the part of the Government, and, if necessary, of further proceeding. As for the speech of the noble Lord the Member for Leitrim, I am sure it must have satisfied the House how difficult it is to apply any measure of relief, either temporary or permanent, to Ireland. We passed a law for the relief of the destitute, and the noble Lord has felt himself justified in characterizing the measure as "a scramble" Because we stated that its object was merely to afford relief to the destitute, the noble Lord is of opinion that the measure may fairly be regarded as "a scramble"


explained: He used the word" scramble" because there was no definition of destitution in the Act. The Commissioners themselves seemed to be quite undecided on the point; for in one circular they declared that men in the possession of land might nevertheless be regarded as destitute, whereas in another they stated that the cases of applicants who were rated above 61. were simply deserving the consideration of the Committee. In the one instance they acknowledged the claim of poor persons even though they might he in possession of land, whereas in the other they merely made it a subject for consideration.


I do not think that the noble Lord has mended his case by the explanation he has given; for how was it possible for the Legislature to define by exact circumstances who are destitute and who are not? Before all boards of guardians and all parish authorities, the allegation of destitution by an applicant for relief must necessarily be matter of inquiry; and any definition of destitution restricted by the possession of a cow, a horse, a table, or a chair, must clearly be idle and futile. It appears to me that the two circulars to which the noble Lord has alluded as having been issued by the Commissioners were perfectly proper, and perfectly consistent one with the other. In the first letter they argued thus—"This is a temporary measure, and we will not make it the means of general ejectment. We will not, therefore, say, that no man having land shall be entitled to relief" In the second letter they gave instructions that inquiries should be made as to the destitution of applicants, and that if a man were rated at 61., or in possession of six acres, the fact should be regarded as a presumption that he was not destitute, and to such a one they ordered that relief should not be given unless special circumstances could be proved to show that he was absolutely in need of it. The difficulty of interpretation which the noble Lord has encountered in the Act, and his warm, though I have no doubt very honest, objection to all those Commissioners, show how difficult it is for any body of public officers to administer such a measure fairly towards all classes, or in such a manner as to give general satisfaction. All the Commissioners, Colonel Jones included, are, in my opinion, worthy of praise rather than of censure; and the opinion is one in which I believe the other Members of the Government entirely concur.


explained that he had not intended to cast censure on the Commissioners. What he contended for was, that the gentlemen who acted as Commissioners had already quite enough to do in the respective departments with which they were connected, without undertaking the onerous duties which devolved upon them under the Relief Act.


was not at all disposed to complain that the Relief Commissioners—if cases such as those which formed the subject of the discussion were brought before them—should have adverted to them in their report. The Commissioners were honourable men—they were placed in a very difficult situation—and he was sure that in noticing such acts of maladministration, they must have been discharging what they must have felt to be a most painful duty. But at the same time he had no hesitation in saying that, assuming the facts to be proved before them, it was their duty to themselves and the public not to pass them over unnoticed. But he thought they had not gone far enough—he thought it would have been a better and more manly course, and more just as regarded the gentry of Ireland and the members of relief committees, that the names of the relief committees, and even of the individuals who were guilty of such abuses, should have been mentioned in the report. Now the House could not wonder if the gentry of Ireland were sensitive on those matters. The House should recollect how frequently and how unjustly the most sweeping charges were made against the whole body of Irish gentry by some hon. Members during the present Session. If, therefore, there were a few cases, such as those mentioned in the report, it was only fair to the great body of the gentry that those cases should be distinctly named. He, for one, was therefore quite ready to support any proposition, not for a general inquiry, but for a more detailed statement of the instances in which such gross malversation had taken place.


found it very difficult to reconcile the representations contained in the report of the Commissioners with a letter of Sir John Burgoyne's, dated the 29th of May, in which it was stated that there was a general anxiety on the part of the Irish gentry to save expense, and to administer the Relief Act in as exemplary a manner as possible. He certainly thought it highly desirable that the House should be put in possession of the data on which the circulars which the Commissioners had issued were founded, and that the names of those who had been guilty of discreditable proceedings should be shown up.


thought the names of the parties aimed at should be specified, the localities mentioned, and the acts complained of distinctly set forth. It had been his fortune to be a member of the Committee already referred to, which had sat for thirty-two days; and although it would be irregular in him to refer to the conclusion at which it had arrived, still he might say that when the report was laid upon the Table, it would be seen that while the aristocracy and landlords of Ireland were placed in circumstances of extreme difficulty, the officers employed in carrying-out the Government measures had also great difficulties to contend with and overcome. He could assure the noble Lord, that nothing could be more difficult than to express in words who were to be considered destitute, and who not. Indeed, it was impossible to give any such definition; and the gentlemen who were employed in administering the relief, must have felt the greatest difficulty in making a selection, from their ignorance of local circumstances. It was not at all uncommon to find a man in the possession of twenty acres of land in the most pitiable state of destitution; and yet it was impossible for him at the moment to give up his holding. To allow such charges as had been specified to remain, without affording the parties implicated the means of rebutting them, would be unworthy of the Government and of the House.

Subject dropped.