HC Deb 07 March 1849 vol 103 cc352-6

CAPTAIN PECHELL moved for copies of the several letters received by the clerk of the Godstone union from the vestry clerk of the parish of Brighton, with the answers thereto, respecting the maintenance of John Ledger, his wife, and family, whose relief was withdrawn by the Godstone guardians pursuant to the instructions of the Poor Law Commissioners, founded upon the opinions of the law officers of the Crown. He said, his object in moving for these papers was to abolish that odious system of oppression by which a poor man, if he had any means whatever of a partial subsistence, was compelled to abandon his family. The Poor Law Commissioners had, in 1846, submitted a case to the law officers of the Crown, for the purpose of ascertaining whether parishes who had incurred expense for removal before the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, ought to be indemnified by others. They gave a decision against the adoption of such a system, which was also adverse to the opinions of some of the highest legal authorities of this country. By this decision fully one-third of the pauper population was made irremovable; and although it was obtained in 1846, no notice whatever was given of it to the several unions for more than two months afterwards. Nevertheless, although there had been several attempts to tinker up the poor-law, and he had repeatedly asked the Attorney General in that House when the state of the law was to be settled, it was not until the 25th of November that the Queen's Bench had come to any determination of the matter. He did not mean in any way to include an allegation against the present hon. Member who was at the head of the Poor Law Board, when he designated their conduct as being in accordance with their usual course of bullying; neither would he allude to the late President of the Board, whose loss he deeply lamented. When that hon. and learned Gentleman entered upon his office, he had looked for better things; nor had he been disappointed. He had evinced a constant desire to mitigate the operation of this law upon the condition of the poor; and, had he been spared, he might have been the instrument of much greater good than that which he effected. He had hoped, when the hon. and learned Gentleman who was now Chairman of the Board entered upon his office, that the system was cleansed of all its evils; but it appeared there was so much bad mixed up in its constitution, that eradication of the mischief was impossible. The House had great reason to complain of the way in which the matter had been treated. Although the most eminent men in the House, and others out of it, of great legal knowledge, declared it could not be the intention of the Act to settle persons who had resided five years in a place, yet, for the space of two years, the country remained in a state of doubt upon the subject, and the Poor Law Commissioners, in their annual report, merely noticed the fact. They said they had submitted the construction of the Act to the Attorney and Solicitor General, and they believed the country was generally satisfied with the construction put upon it by those functionaries. That document was signed by George Nicholls and Edmund Head. The House ought to have those gentlemen before it, to say why they mystified this subject, and why they kept the country in this state, by which parties were put to the greatest expense, and the poor to the greatest misery that could possibly occur. Lord Denman had given a decision which was opposed to the opinion of the Attorney and Solicitor General. The present President of the Poor Law Commission acknowledged that the construction of the Act had been settled by Lord Denman, and that many parishes had been saddled with expenses wholly unnecessary. In the parish of Brighton the poor settled in the town cost 1,168l. It was in order to get an explanation from the President of the Poor Law Commission, and to rectify the difficulty which the Poor Law Commissioners had thrown on the country, and in order to see what power there was to obtain a remedy from them, that he had brought this subject before the House. There might be three courses. The first was to get the money from the persons who had caused all those difficulties. Mr. George Nicholls and Sir Edmund Head should be applied to for payment first of all; and in default of them he should look to the Government and the Poor Law Commissioners to reimburse the parish for the expense of their non-resident poor when the law was unsettled. Then, again, the hon. and learned President of the Poor Law Board should bring In a Bill to enable parishes to repay this expenditure. He did hope something would be done where so manifest an injustice had been created. The Poor Law Commissioners had had their amusement, and he now called upon them to pay the bill.


was willing to take the whole responsibility of the matter. The Poor Law Commissioners had nothing to do with it; they acted on an opinion given by his hon. Colleague (the Solicitor General) and himself on the construction of this statute; and he was prepared to abide by that opinion. The question was, whether the proviso was retrospective or not. He and his hon. Colleague gave the question the best consideration they could; and they came to an opinion upon the Act, which they gave to the Poor Law Commissioners. They were not singular in that construction; many hon. and learned Members in that House, and many lawyers out of it, gave the same opinion, that the proviso was not retrospective. He apprehended that no blame could attach to him because the Court of Queen's Bench had overthrown an opinion which he had given upon the construction of an Act of Parliament; nor could the Poor Law Commissioners be blamed. They had no power to send a case before the Queen's Bench, though he, in his capacity of Attorney General, mooted this matter in the Queen's Bench on their behalf; but the court held that they had no right to decide sooner for one party than another. In this case, then, there was no ground of complaint at all. He had no objection to the production of the papers.


said, it was a great grievance that the parishes should have been made to pay contrary to the law. He considered that the Attorney General was not quite so free from blame as he imagined. He trusted the papers would be produced.


considered that neither the law officers of the Crown nor the Poor Law Commissioners were to blame in the matter. Certain parishes had applied to the Poor Law Commissioners for advice as to the construction of an Act of Parliament, which led to their laying the Act and case before the Attorney and Solicitor General for their opinion. In their private capacity the Poor Law Commissioners had forwarded that opinion to the various parishes throughout the country, for their guidance in arriving at a proper construction of a difficult Act of Parliament; but it was quite optional for those parishes to adopt the advice or not. He trusted that the House would not agree to any Motion which would have for its object the reopening of the accounts which had already been audited and closed. The Poor Law Commissioners had done all in their power in explaining the construction of a very difficult Act of Parliament.


agreed with the hon. Member for Oxfordshire, that it was desirable it should be understood that there was no intention whatever to re-open accounts between parishes which had been finally settled and audited, and that Parliament would not consent to any Bill for that purpose. What had taken place with respect to payments made by one parish to another, in consequence of the opinion given by the Attorney and Solicitor General, made it difficult to tell what parishes had gained or lost by it. Parishes had usually gained by it upon one set of paupers, and lost by another. Nothing, in his opinion, could be more fair or more entirely within the proper discharge of his duties, than the conduct of the late Mr. C. Buller, in seeking and adopting the opinion of the law officers of the Crown.


considered that a degree of blame attached either to the Poor Law Commissioners or to the Government, because they resisted his suggestion that a declaratroy Act should be passed, which proposition, if it had been adopted, would have had the effect of saving a very large amount of expenditure. But the Government having resisted that Motion, therefore they were to blame.


reminded the hon. Member for Dorsetshire that when he made the Motion, the question was being considered by a Committee which was then sitting. That Committee reported that there was no necessity for a declaratory Act.


was glad that the papers would be laid before the House, because the matter could not rest here. He considered it his duty to follow up this subject, because he considered the House would not sanction so great an act of injustice as that which had arisen from its bad legislation.

The subject then dropped.