HC Deb 28 February 1849 vol 102 cc1376-86

On the Question that the Order of the Day be read for the House resolving itself into a Committee on the Outdoor Paupers Bill,


said, that the Bill which they were then about to consider in Committee had only been delivered on the 27th of February, and read a second time at half-past twelve o'clock in the morning. It would of course be in the recollection of the House that very recently the lives of nearly 200 children had been lost in an asylum kept by a person of the name of Drouet; everything relating to this subject had, therefore, become a matter of the highest importance; upon that ground, then, he did not hesitate to call the attention of the House to the circumstance that great doubts were entertained as to whether the provisions of the Bill would meet the evils and the difficulties of the case. He hoped, then, that the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Baines) would state his views and intentions on the subject. In the first place, he should himself, however, observe, that he saw no reason why the poor should be farmed out of the workhouses; he saw no reason why, whether they were of age or under age, they should be let out to any one to make a profit of them. Every Member of that House would, he felt assured, bear him out in the assertion when he stated, that one great object of the Poor Law Amendment Bill was, that all paupers should be placed within the workhouse; and it especially provided, that if in any case paupers happened to be sent out of the workhouses, the Poor Law Commissioners should have power to make regulations for their protection and government; but the difficulty lay in making such rules obligatory. It was much to be regretted that there existed no effective system of inspection, and to that he more particularly begged to call the attention of the hon. Gentleman opposite, the Chief of the Poor Law Commission. The Commissioners could not have their attention directed to every abuse; they could not have the eyes of Argus; they could not investigate every case at once; and a remarkable illustration of that truth was presented not long since by the results of the Andover inquiry. There was no want of rules in that union; but nevertheless the practice of the union was most blameable; in fact, the occurrences were of a kind so painful that he had no wish to revive the recollection of them. In his opinion, it was in vain to talk of rules, for rules could do no good without an efficient system of inspection, inasmuch as rules could only be enforced by some one near the spot. The want of providing for this system of inspection appeared to him the main defect of the Bill. If houses for the reception of the poor—not being workhouses—existed at all, they must be placed under some sound jurisdiction—that, for example, of the magistrates of the kingdom. There must be such a power, and it might be so given and constituted as to prevent a repetition of the dreadful occurrences which had recently taken place not far from London. This was a truth allowed by every one. Hav- ing made these few observations, he had only further to say, that he should be glad to hear what reasons could be alleged for the existence of such houses at all.


said, he was very grateful to the hon. Baronet who had just addressed the House for giving him an opportunity of making a short statement regarding the measure then before them. The recent event to which the hon. Baronet had referred, was one which naturally excited a great degree of interest; but it was a mistake to suppose, as some persons had done, that the system of contracts for the maintenance of the poor originated since the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act. Nearly 130 years ago it was authorised by the 9th of George I., in the year 1722. By that statute the overseers of the poor were authorised to obtain contracts for the accommodation and maintenance of the poor outside of the workhouse. Ever since then provision for I the poor had been contracted for in the manner recognised by statute. Checks and precautions were of course attended to; but there could be no doubt as to the legality of the practice—none whatever. Gilbert's Act provided for sending out all children to parties who might contract for their provision and maintenance; a practice that was deemed advisable with regard to all the Gilbert unions. In the metropolitan districts it was not only permitted by statute, but enjoined; for Han-way's Act, in 1767, made it imperative on the overseers of the metropolitan parishes to send out the children of the poor to be maintained by contract in the country. That enactment remained in force till 1844, when, being repealed, the practice, though still permitted and authorised, was no longer enjoined. He should endeavour to give an historical account of the state of pauperism generally in those houses which did not properly come under the denomination of workhouses, for he thought that the House would be anxious to receive information on the subject, and he therefore had taken some pains to make himself acquainted with it. He was, then, enabled to state that houses of that description scarcely existed anywhere except in the metropolis. They had been legal ever since the time of George I., either as substitutes or auxiliaries; but still he found scarcely any trace of them in the provincial districts. As to the districts in the neighbourhood of the metropolis, he found that in London, Middlesex, Kent, and Sur- rey, there were seven institutions of that description. There were two of them at Stepney and Peckham, where paupers belonging to the city of London union were sent, but they would probably be superseded before the end of the present year, as a good workhouse was being built. Those establishments would, therefore, die a natural death. A third institution, of which he had no doubt many hon. Members had heard, was that of Mr. Aubyn, at Norwood, in which there were somewhat less than 1,200 children. That was an institution which, he believed, had been thought extremely well of by those who had visited it. He was not aware that any complaints had been made with regard to it—the establishment was in an exceedingly healthy situation—and no one could doubt that, in an establishment of that kind, if it was well conducted, the children's interests were more cared for than they possibly could be in an overcrowded workhouse, or if they were allowed to run about the streets. There were also two other institutions at Margate, one of them containing 131 persons, and the other 133, comprising both adults and children. These were establishments to which paupers, who required the benefit of sea air, were sent from different workhouses; there could be no doubt they were extremely valuable institutions; and he believed there had never been any cause of complaint against them—at least all the inquiries he had made led him to that conclusion. There was also a small institution near Welling, in Kent, where there were 44 adult paupers who were sent from a particular union in the city of London. The only remaining institution of this kind was one at Brixton, where there were 195 pauper adults and infants; and he understood that, with regard to that house, there had been practically no ground of complaint. These were the institutions, seven in number, with respect to which it was necessary to adopt some legislative measures. He purposely abstained from referring to events which had taken place at Tooting, because they were about to be made the subject of investigation in a criminal court of justice. On that account he would not say anything whatever with regard to the conduct of the person at the head of that establishment; but he thought what had taken place there—whether that person was to blame or not—furnished a strong illustration of the necessity of some further powers being given by the Legislature with espect to such institutions. It was manifest, at all events, that the system was open to abuse; and he trusted this Bill would enable them to take effectual precautions against the recurrence of such abuses, so long as houses of this kind might exist. He did not think it likely that those establishments would be retained for any long period; but he considered that the law could not at once interpose to destroy the property of particular persons—that property having been created under the law as it had stood for 120 years past—without any fault on the part of those persons. He thought the House would rather be disposed to legislate with a view to the regulation of such houses, and to the prevention of abuses. By the Poor Law Amendment Act very ample powers were given with regard to the regulation of workhouses; but with respect to such houses as he had mentioned, what were called "contract houses," nothing like the same kind of effective control was provided by the Legislature. The person at the head of an establishment of that kind could by no means be called the paid servant of any union or parish, and still less could his assistants be called the "paid officers "—the term which he believed was used in the Poor Law Amendment Act—of any union or parish, so as to give the poor-law board, or the boards of guardians, the power of interfering with them, as they could interfere with the paid officers of any parish or union. Hence the most that had been done in time past with regard to such persons by the Poor Law Board and Commissioners had been to visit them now and then, and to give advice as to their management; but the Board had always felt that they did not possess that kind of efficient control which had been given them with regard to workhouses, and which, he submitted, ought to be given them with reference to houses of this description. He hoped that, by the Bill now before the House, effectual means of control would be provided. In the first place, it would give to the Poor Law Board the power of prescribing rules for the management of all houses of this kind. There were certain general rules which would be applicable to all institutions of this nature; but, as their number was so small, it was clear that, if necessary, the Board could issue rules applicable to them individually, to suit the circumstances of each particular case. The Board also proposed to take a power, which he thought very material, to mould the contracts which might be entered into between the guardians on the one hand, and the contractors on the other. In the Poor Law Act of 1844 an analogous power was given to the Poor Law Commissioners, to mould the contracts between masters and parish apprentices. Up to that time there had been very great diversity in the form of the indentures by which parish apprentices were bound; but by the Act then passed power was given to the Commissioners to mark out certain terms, and to insist upon their being introduced into every indenture. The present Bill proposed that the Poor Law Board should have the power of laying down certain terms, and insisting that they should form part and parcel of every contract that might be entered into between the contractor and the guardians, with regard to paupers, whether adults or infants. The Board also proposed to take power to enforce the observance of these regulations so laid down, by penalties; and this Bill would give them a power, which they did not possess at present, of summarily dismissing altogether the contractor, or any servants of the establishment, if there was any substantial ground of charge against them. The Board could then step in, if they saw occasion, and say, "This servant or officer is unfit for his situation; we think he does not do justice to the pauper children under his charge, and we insist upon his dismissal." In the latter part of this Bill very effective powers of visitation were given. He begged to thank the hon. Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley) for a suggestion, of which he (Mr. Baines) had availed himself, and which would simplify this part of the Bill. The 7th and 8th sections of the Bill as they now stood would provide with respect to houses of this kind the same powers of visitation that had been provided by the Poor Law Amendment Act with regard to workhouses; but he thought upon consideration that if the first three lines of the 7th section were struck out, and the power of visitation was left to the justices, all the exigencies of the case would be met, and ample powers of visitation would be afforded. The magistrates might, whenever they thought fit, without giving any notice, visit houses of this description; they might authorise physicians, surgeons, or the parochial medical officers, to inspect such houses, and to report to them; and then, of course, reports would be made to the Poor Law Board, who also had their own inspectors, who by a former Act of Parliament were empowered to visit any houses in which paupers were kept, He trusted, therefore, that by this Bill they bad made every provision, as far as it was in human power to do so, for the safety and welfare of every class of paupers, and especially of that class who were peculiarly unprotected, and who had a strong claim upon their sympathy and attention—the class of pauper children. He looked forward to the day when houses of this kind would be rendered unnecessary by the introduction of establishments like those district schools which were marked out in the Act of 1844. Hitherto they had met with great difficulties in the establishment of such schools; but he was happy to state that one good consequence of the recent melancholy event at Tooting had been this—that in the city of London, and in all the metropolitan districts, they now found among many influential persons the strongest desire to carry out the provisions of the Act of Parliament with regard to district schools. He begged to apologise for having taken up so much of the time of the House; but he considered that he owed it to the House and to the public to give this explanation.


believed, that the hon. Gentleman's statement would give great satisfaction, not only to the House, but to the country. He thought the Government had taken the only course that was open to them; and that till pauper children were provided for in public establishments, these institutions ought to be made as far as possible public establishments by extending to them the laws which applied to such establishments. Some of the provisions of the Bill might appear rather stringent, but it must be remembered that no man came under their operation except by his own free will.


had been very glad to hear the lucid and able statement of the hon. Gentleman, and he had no doubt it would be satisfactory to the public, among whom considerable anxiety existed on this subject. There was, however, one point which had not been touched upon by the hon. Gentleman. He (Mr. Baines) had referred to the recent occurrences at Tooting, and had said he thought it unadvisable, as the case was about to come before a court of justice, to enter into the question of the responsibility of the master of that establishment. He (Mr. Poulett Scrope) wished, however, to call the attention of the House to the responsibility of the Poor Law Commissioners with respect to that case. It appeared to him that the Commissioners had, to a great extent, possessed the power of interference with such institutions, and he thought it a most lamentable circumstance that that power had not been exercised. No one could hesitate for a moment to admit that it was absolutely necessary, for the safety of the children in these establishments, that such powers as had been alluded to by the hon. Gentleman should be conferred on some person; but he considered that these powers, or some of them, had already been conferred upon the Poor Law Commissioners by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. To the best of his judgment and belief the 49th section of that Act authorised the Poor Law Commissioners to exercise such control over these establishments as would have enabled them to provide for the proper maintenance and treatment of the inmates. [The hon. Gentleman read the section to which he referred, and which provides that any contract which shall be entered into by any parish or union for the maintenance, clothing, lodging, or relief of the poor, which shall not be made and entered into in conformity with the rules, orders, or regulations of the Commissioners, or otherwise sanctioned by them, shall be voidable.] He did not profess to give a legal opinion as to the application of this clause, but it appeared to him that it conferred upon the Commissioners ample powers, which he thought they ought to have exercised. The Commissioners could not be ignorant of the fact that children were farmed out in great numbers at such establishments as had been referred to by the hon. Gentleman; and surely—being aware of that fact—they ought to have overhauled the contracts, and ascertained that they were prudent and proper, and, if not, they should have voided them. In making this remark, he did not mean to throw the slightest imputation upon the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baines), who had only recently come into office, nor upon the predecessor of that Gentleman (Mr. C. Buller), who had held office for so short a period that no one could cast the shadow of blame upon him for not having interfered in the matter. He thought it most unfortunate, however, that former Commissioners, having had ample time for the purpose, had not inquired into the nature of the contracts, to ascertain whether they were sufficiently guarded to secure the due maintenance of the children, and that in the event of their proving otherwise, they had not rescinded them. He understood that none of these contracts had ever been laid before the Commissioners, and that, in fact, in the Tooting case there was no written contract, but a mere verbal arrangement. He entertained a strong opinion that on this point the Poor Law Commissioners had been deeply culpable, and that they were to a great extent responsible for the neglect of the children by the parish officers and the contractor, because they had not exercised the powers conferred upon them by the Act of 1834.

The House then went into Committee.

On Clause 7, providing the power of inspection by justices of the peace,


said, he was still of opinion that a more efficient inspection might be adopted. Suppose the justices did not attend to the duty, what was to be the result? He would wish to see provision made for a periodical inspection, say once a month.


observed, that the poor-law inspectors, as he had before stated, were already armed with full authority to visit such establishments, and it was now proposed to give the power of visitation to the magistrates, who might exercise it when they chose. He thought it certainly ought not to be assumed that the magistrates would not do their duty.


considered that an inspection was requisite, which might be in some degree independent of the Poor Law Board. A poor-law inspector visiting these establishments would be influenced by the feeling of the Board for the time being, whatever it might be; and he thought it would be well to appoint other persons, retired medical men or others, to visit these institutions from time to time. Without some such arrangement he thought they had no security that the inspection would be conducted by men who were not afraid to speak out their minds. They had had proof, in his opinion, that the system of inspection under the Poor Law Commissioners had been most inefficient.


observed, that if, in compliance with the hon Baronet's suggestion, additional visitors were appointed, they would necessarily be connected in some degree with the poor-law establishment, and would be open to the charge he had made against the officers of that establishment. In order to provide an independent inspection, the Bill proposed to vest the visitation in the justices of the peace, by whom, he had no doubt, it would be satisfactorily conducted.


said, that under this seventh clause, the justices of the peace would have precisely the same power of visitation, with regard to these establishments, as they at present had with respect to workhouses; and, in addition to the power of visiting themselves, they were authorised to direct visitation by physicians, surgeons, or other persons.

The clause was then agreed to, as were the remaining clauses of the Bill.

Bill reported with Amendments.

Bill, as amended, to be considered Tomorrow.

House adjourned at a quarter before Six o'clock.