§ MR. SOTHERON
, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said, that the object of it was to remedy certain defects in the Friendly Societies Bill passed two years ago. It required that a competent authority should be appointed who should certify not only that the rates and contributions which had accumulated in these different friendly societies were sufficient to meet their liabilities, but that he should also affix his signature of approval to the rules as well as the tables of such society. The recent Act provided that every five years there should be a valuation made of the assets and liabilities, 303 which should be drawn out and sent to the registrar; but it omitted to provide that tins computation was to be done by a competent person. That part of the measure was therefore useless. This Bill would require this computation to be made by a competent person, namely, an actuary of five years' standing, and to whom a fee of one guinea was to be paid. Having received several communications recently complaining of the inadequacy of this fee, it was his intention in Committee to move that the fee should vary according to the number of members in the society, beginning with one guinea when the number did not exceed 200; and when it was more than 200, and not above 400, two guineas; when above 400, and not exceeding 700, three guineas; when above 700, and not exceeding 1,000, four guineas; when above 1,000, and not exceeding 1,500, five guineas; and so on, increasing in proportion. From the calculations made, these fees would not amount, in every five years, to more than one penny a head to each member. Such a return would afford a certain means of ascertaining the solvency of every society in the kingdom. The Bill would also require that every year each society should make a return of its assets and liabilities; and the registrar should make out from this return a paper to be laid before Parliament, by which a mass of information would be collected upon this important subject. It was not generally known in this House how very large a portion of the community of this kingdom were subscribers to these friendly societies. The Bill would affect not less than 34,200 societies, the number of members in which exceeded 4,000,000. The annual sum raised thus from the savings of poor men exceeded the sum of 6,000,000l. He thought, then, it would be allowed that this subject deserved the attention of Parliament, with a view to protect the interests of the poor persons who invested a portion of their hard earnings in those friendly societies. The Attorney General had intimated to him that the Government wished to make some alteration with respect to burial clubs; and perhaps that hon. and learned Gentleman would undertake to draw up a clause on the subject, which might be proposed at a subsequent stage of the Bill.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, that he highly approved of the object of the measure; but there were one or two points which required much consideration. It would appear by the terms of the 3rd 304 section, that the registrar might receive fees to the amount of 5,000l. or 6,000l. a year from the societies transmitting their accounts. [Mr. SOTHERON said he was ready to provide against such a large accession to the registrar's fees.] Now, he apprehended that it could not be the intention of the hon. Member who had charge of the Bill, or of the House, to authorise any one individual placed in the situation of the officer referred to, to receive so large a salary. Such a provision would lead to the greatest evils, and to the grossest imposition towards the public. He thought, likewise, that some provisions ought to be made to guard against the dangerous temptations held out by burial societies. How this object was to be effected was, no doubt, a matter that called for their most serious consideration. It might be questioned whether the title of this Bill would warrant the introduction of such provisions. He thought, however, that it would be a most important object to attain if they could embody all these provisions within one general and comprehensive measure.
§ MR. ROUNDELL PALMER
thought that there were other societies in which a great many poor and industrious persons had placed their savings, which were not under the protection of the law, and which demanded their immediate attention—he referred to the "Odd Fellows'" societies. There were no possible remedies as yet adopted against the grossest frauds that might be committed in those societies. When it was considered that there were many thousands of those societies, and that the number of members belonging to them was immense, it was, he thought, the duty of Parliament to devise some means by which the protection of the law would be afforded to them. In Manchester alone, where the chief society of Odd Fellows was established, there were no less than 264,000 members belonging to it. The annual amount raised from them was 396,000l. He believed that the Bill that was framed last year to meet this case failed because some members of these societies were not willing to be placed under the power of the law. He thought, however, that it was their business to bring them within the operations of the law.
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
said, that in the observations which he had previously made he did not intend to allude to the "Odd Fellows," which were not legal societies; though he believed them, 305 in many respects, to be very useful societies, they required to be supervised and regulated. Those societies were illegal on two grounds—they had secret signs, and they had branch or corresponding societies. The members were ready to communicate their secret signs to magistrates, but they were unwilling to give up their corresponding societies, on the ground that they could not do so without destroying the efficiency of the associations. It had not been thought advisable, especially under the circumstances existing last year, to repeal the laws against corresponding societies—a step which might have given any persons, under the pretence of being members of Odd Fellows' societies, an opportunity of organising seditious societies; but he was most anxious that the Odd Fellows' societies should be brought within the protection of the law.
§ MR. BROTHERTON
thought it was most important that something should be done in respect to these societies of Odd Fellows, as there was at present no security whatever against frauds committed on them. In respect to the present Bill, he was of opinion that it was a most dangerous experiment to authorise the payment of fees, as it would have a tendency to discourage persons from joining these friendly societies, which should rather be fostered and encouraged as much as possible. He knew, however, that many of them had been formed upon erroneous principles; but a proper measure of legislation would have the effect of correcting these evils in some degree by giving a good security to those who subscribed to them. It was also most desirable to discourage the system of holding their meetings in public-houses, where a great portion of the money which might be dedicated to useful purposes was expended for liquor.
§ MR. ADDERLEY
said, that the difficulty of legislating for the Odd Fellows' societies arose from their own objections to the proposal made to them to bring them within the sanction of the law. There appeared to him to be only one objection to the bringing them within the provisions of a Bill, and that was their secret signs. The objection as to their being corresponding societies, he thought could be got over, for by the 9th and 10th Vict. that difficulty was provided against if these societies were enrolled. In respect to friendly societies, he thought that the best way to avoid the evils that might arise from them, was to have a constant and rigid examination of 306 their accounts. All the incipient danger might be avoided by a proper measure of legislation.
§ MR. HUME
did not know anything more important than to encourage these societies, for he always thought that they afforded the best means of cultivating prudence and thriftiness amongst the working classes. He thought it most desirable to enable all such societies to obtain legal advice without much expense; indeed, he would support a proposition to pay a professional man at the public expense, for he thought that the public money could not be better bestowed than by encouraging habits of prudence amongst the people, and enabling them to provide against sickness or other contingencies to which the most provident and best-disposed people were liable. He wished to ask the hon. and learned Attorney General whether he was disposed to concur in the opinion that all societies should be brought within that protection of the law which, he said, was not now given them?
The ATTORNEY GENERAL
was quite disposed to concur in the opinion that it was desirable that all these societies should be brought under the operation of the law; the difficulty was with respect to the mode of carrying that object into effect. It might be desirable to arm the law with a summary power to inflict penalties upon those societies professing to act, but which in reality did not act, under the sanction of the law.
§ MR. H. HERBERT
observed, that as the law at present stood, there was no responsibility, and consequently no security, felt in these friendly societies. He trusted that the House would now legislate in such a manner as to impart a feeling of security in the public mind with respect to these institutions.
§ MR. E. DENISON
thought that the class of persons who were interested in these societies were greatly deserving of the attention and consideration of the House. Many of these societies offered higher premiums in the country than legal societies did. They came before the public with very much the show of solidity, and ignorant people were generally captivated by the promise of a high rate of interest, and thus induced to intrust their hard-earned savings to them. He trusted that this Bill would be made to embrace a much wider field than was now proposed, and that all those societies would be brought within its scope.
§ MR. P. SCROPE
, whilst he concurred in the objects of the Bill, doubted whether it would be found effectual in curing the evils which existed with respect to those societies. Some years ago he had introduced a Bill for placing these societies on a sounder footing, but the measure failed in its object. These societies, which were sometimes called "friendly," sometimes "benefit societies," were in fact mutual assurance societies, in which the parties mutually insured each other against certain contingencies that might arise. Now, it was of the greatest importance so to secure the solvency of these societies, that a party, after having subscribed for years in anticipation of a particular benefit at the expiration of a certain period, should feel that he was protected against the sudden breaking up, or bankruptcy, of the concern. But the whole subject was one upon which the Government itself could best legislate.
§ LORD DUDLEY STUART
said, that all sides of the House admitted the utility and importance of the Odd Fellows' societies. Was it not, then, extraordinary that they should be still allowed to be illegal? He trusted the hon. Gentleman opposite would, if possible, introduce a clause in his Bill to include them.
MR. CORNEWALL LEWIS
thought that the House generally would agree that the hon. Gentleman who had introduced the Bill was entitled to their thanks for the trouble he had taken. There seemed to be no objection to the second reading. But the details of the Bill were such, and some of the observations and suggestions of the hon. Members for Plymouth and Kerry were so important, that the better course would probably be to read the Bill a second time, and refer it to a Committee upstairs.
§ MR. SOTHERON
had no objection to the Bill being referred to the Select Committee, provided it were not materially extended in its principles and operations. His fear was, that the numerous suggestions likely to be made in Committee would so alter the Bill from the comparatively small one which he meant it to be, that it would be in fact lost. There were 34,000 of those societies in England, with a capital of 6,000,000l., and not above one-half of them were enrolled. As his Bill was merely to amend the measure under which they were enrolled, its operations would extend to only about 14,000 societies. If, then, he agreed to the Select Committee, he hoped that at the first meeting they would define exactly what their 308 objects were. And if he did not think the effort of the Committee would be to carry out his objects, he trusted the Government would come to the rescue.
MR. CORNEWALL LEWIS
explained that he had no intention of imposing upon the hon. Gentleman a general revision of the law relating to friendly societies. But inasmuch as several suggestions had been offered, he thought they would be better considered by a Select Committee than by the House.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.