HC Deb 13 June 1851 vol 117 cc727-37

Order read for going into Committee of Supply.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


rose to "call the attention of the House to the petition of the late Guardians of the Ennistymon Union, and to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the causes assigned for their dismissal, and the administration of the affairs of the Union." He was induced to bring this matter under the consideration of the House from a conviction that the Commissioners of Poor Laws in Ireland had established a most pernicious precedent by dissolving the Ennistymon Board of Guardians, who, up to the time of their dissolution, were performing their duties in a most upright and exemplary manner. The reason assigned by the Commissioners for dissolving them was, that they had manifested a disinclination to resort to the outdoor system of relief; but the Guardians, in so acting, had pursued a most judicious course, and had entitled themselves rather to commendation than to censure. The feeling of the county was decidedly averse to the Poor Law Commissioners, and in favour of the Board of Guardians. At a meeting of the ratepayers, at which he had himself presided, this fact was demonstrated in a manner not to be mistaken. He confessed he had expected that the ratepayers would have taken part against the Board of Guardians, but he was agreeably surprised to find that the current of feeling was quite the other way, and that the opinion was of very general prevalence that the Poor Law Commissioners had not acted wisely in dismissing the Board of Guardians. During the last six or seven years, the sum contributed by the county of Clare for the relief of the destitute poor fell little short of 1,000,000l. The poor-law expenditure in 1848 was 111,000l.; in 1849, it was about 175,000l., on a valuation of 300,000l., a larger expenditure than had occurred in the county of Lancaster, with a population of nearly 1,500,000l., and last year it was 121,000l., on a valuation of 220,000l. This enormous taxation had reduced the country to a most unhappy condition, and called for the most serious attention of that House. All classes of ratepayers were in a position of deep distress, and the sufferings of the clergy were of the most grievous description. A clergyman with a nominal income of 230l. a year, was obliged to pay 110l. in rates, which left him 120l. for the support of his family. The only means by which this evil could be checked, and the course of ruin stayed, was by reversing the policy on which the Poor Law Commissioners had acted in dissolving the Ennistymon Union. The only plan for restoring the country to anything like prosperity was to commit the administration of the poor-law as much as possible to the local authorities and the resident gentry. The Poor Law Commissioners had, by their proceedings in Ennistymon, weakened the hands of every Board of Guardians in the country. A great pressure was made upon the boards by masses of paupers, many of whom were, no doubt, in deep distress, and deserved relief; but, mingled with these deserving objects were crowds of persons who had no legitimate claim whatever on the Boards of Guardians, but whose fictitious pretensions, hacked by the authority of the Poor Law Commissioners, became irresistible. These people were the ablebodied poor—the labouring classes of the country, who were required to cultivate the soil, but who, in too many cases, would not work when they found that they could obtain the means of sustenance at the workhouse. No doubt it would be urged against him that the deaths in the west of Ireland had been very numerous; but he thought that that should rather be an argument in his favour, because it resulted from allowing improper persons to force themselves upon the rates, to the exclusion of the proper objects. He had known cases where farmers, tenanting forty acres of land, had received relief all the year round at the workhouses; and cases wore not uncommon where persons in comfortable circumstances sent for their rations regularly to the workhouse, and had them conveyed to them in a cart driven by a well-fed boy, and drawn by a stout pony. He could not bring himself to believe that such practices as these had ever been contemplated by the original framers of the poor-law, nor did he think that the Ennistymon Board of Guardians had acted inhumanely or unconstitutionally in setting their face against them. In fact, abuses existed to such an extent as no one could have an idea of who was not acquainted with the country. Local guardians alone could apply the only correction to abuses of this nature. The petition which he had presented on a previous occasion fully set out the case of the Guardians. They stated that when they took charge of the Union from the former vice-guardians, under whom it had been for two years, they found a debt existing of 13,000l., and an expenditure of 38,000l. a year. The relief list was in the greatest possible confusion. The rents of the auxiliary houses wore enormously high, and no less than fifty-six officers were employed of one kind or another. The petitioners immediately set about reducing the rents, the salaries, and the number of officers; and that, of course, occasioned a clamour against the Board of Guardians, which ended in its dissolution. The question, as affecting the general operation of the poor-law system in Ireland, was one of very great importance, and he hoped the House would consent to grant him a Select Committee to institute a rigid investigation into all the facts connected with it.

Amendment proposed— To leave out from the word 'That' to the end of the Question, in order to add the words 'a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the allegations contained in the Petition of the late Guardians of the Ennistymon Union, and inquire into the causes assigned for their dismissal, and the administration of the affairs of the Union,' instead thereof.


seconded the Motion.


said, he felt compelled to oppose the Motion of his hon. Friend, because, were he to consent to the appointment of a Committee, he should be admitting that the Poor Law Commissioners had in this instance improperly made use of the powers which Parliament had confided to them, for the purpose of providing for the relief of the poor of Ireland. The question they had to consider was, whether in this particular case the Poor Law Commissioners had properly exercised their power in dismissing the Board of Guardians of the Ennistymon Union. He did not deny the great difficulties which the Guardians of the Ennistymon Union had to contend with. Perhaps there was not an Union in Ireland that had greater difficulties. The House would remember that Parliament had thrown the responsibility upon the Poor Law Commissioners of Ireland; and the papers which had been moved for, and were now in the hands of hon. Members, would put them in possession of all the facts of the case, and show them that the Poor Law Commissioners had not been hasty in dissolving local Boards, for this very Board of Guardians of Ennistymon was the only Board that had been dissolved, and only in this instance was there a Board of paid Guardians existing in Ireland. As early as the 23rd of August, 1843, the Board of Guardians expressed a desire to put an end to outdoor relief; and the Poor Law Commissioners then called their attention to the excess of inmates in the workhouse at that time as compared with the accommodation. The Board of Guardians took no notice of that communication, but applied for a loan to the treasurer of the Union for the purpose of providing additional workhouse accommodation; and they discharged in six weeks about 470 persons, notwithstanding which there still remained an excess in the workhouse, as compared with the accommodation, of 480 persons: and Mr. Briscoe reported that the destitution continued to increase, hut for want of room admission to the workhouse was refused, except in urgent cases. Upon that the Poor Law Commissioners wrote, as he thought was their duty, that they would not permit the workhouse to he in this overcrowded state, and that some steps must he taken to relieve the applicants out. The Board of Guardians met on the 29th November, and resolved not to admit any more paupers into the House, to discharge any they could be legally relieved from, and to postpone the consideration of the Commissioners' letter for a fortnight. The Poor Law Commissioners, thereupon, wrote to the Board of Guardians, and stated that, under the circumstances of the Union this resolution amounted, in fact, to a suspension of the administration of relief to the destitute poor for one fortnight, and they therefore peremptorily called upon the Board of Guardians to take efficient steps for the relief of the destitute poor, otherwise they, the Commissioners, would be compelled to revert to the extraordinary powers vested in them by the Legislature, in case of any Board of Guardians abandoning its duty. The Commissioners at the same time wrote to Mr. Briscoe, requesting him to call an extraordinary meeting of the Board of Guardians, to consider this state of things, and that in the meantime they relied on him instructing the relieving officers in the execution of their office. Mr. Briscoe replied that it was of no use calling a meeting of the Board of Guardians before the ordinary meeting, as the result would be a very scanty attendance; and as he felt confident they would not grant any outdoor relief, and that the relieving officers were perfectly aware of the duties they had to discharge. The Board of Guardians met on the 6th of December, and passed a resolution assuring the Poor Law Commissioners of their wish to carry out the administration of relief, but they considered outdoor relief was utterly impossible. The House would see that the Board of Guardians said they desired to carry out the administration of the law, but unfortunately they did not do it. Mr. Briscoe wrote that the opinion of the majority of the Board of Guardians was, that they would not be able to resist the pressure consequent upon outdoor relief, and that the affairs of the Union ought to be managed by paid officers—that the affairs of the Union deserved the best consideration of the Poor Law Commissioners—and that for the assistance they had rendered, the Board of Guardians had at all times expressed their thanks. The Board of Gruardians again met on the 13th of December, and adjourned until the following day any arrangements for entering upon the occupation of houses for additional accommodation. On the 18th the Poor Law Commissioners wrote to the Board of Guardians stating that no meeting had taken place on the 14th to make arrangements for the occupation of additional houses, notwithstanding that the workhouse continued to be overcrowded, and that many applicants were refused solely on the ground that there was no room; and on this ground they urged the necessity of affording relief out of the workhouse, at least until more workhouse accommodation was obtained. The Commissioners then wrote to Mr. Lynch, and desired him to examine into the condition of the Ennistymon Union, and to make a special report on the subject. He would merely read one paragraph from Mr. Lynch's letter, which was at page 12 of this correspondence, the last paragraph but one:— I was sorry to hear that the Guardians refused children from nine to fifteen years of age more than half a pound of meal a day, which, in my opinion, is not sufficient to sustain life. After receiving that letter from Mr. Lynch, the Commissioners made an order for the dissolution of the Board. Parliament had placed upon the Poor Law Commissioners a serious responsibility, and, considering the delays which took place in the administration of relief by the Board of Guardians—that they totally failed to provide relief for the destitute poor, the way in which they proposed to administer relief after they had determined to administer it out of the workhouse—taking into consideration all these circumstances, if ever there was a case in which the Poor Law Commissioners could be justified in carrying out the powers confided to them, this was the case. If under such circumstances the Poor Law Commissioners were to be complained of, and the House was to grant a Committee of Inquiry, they had better at once take away the power from the Poor Law Commissioners altogether. He should, therefore, feel it his duty to oppose the Motion.


said, that the Motion might be objected to on the ground that it involved a censure upon the Poor Law Commissioners; but he thought, as the only appeal from the decision of the Commissioners was to that House, it was very right that the House should determine the question. He considered, also, that the state in which the Union had been left, afforded great excuse for the conduct of the late Board of Guardians; and he would therefore give his vote for the Motion of the hon. Baronet (Sir L. O'Brien). he (Colonel Dunne) was one of a deputation, including nearly all the Irish Members, which waited some time ago upon the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and there were two points upon which, he believed they were all agreed—first, that the system of outdoor relief, as part of the permanent poor-law, ought to be abolished; and also that the Poor Law Commissioners ought to be deprived of the power of arbitrarily dismissing Guardians of the Poor. In the case of the Ennistymon Union, the Poor Law Commissioners considered outdoor relief necessary, and they gave directions to the Guardians to afford such relief. It was true that the Board of Guardians delayed for a fortnight their consideration of the Commissioners' letter; but they did not delay acting upon the recommendation of the Commissioners, for it would be found from the published correspondence that the vice-chairman of the Union actually went at once to look at some houses with the view of obtaining increased accommodation. It was alleged that there was a combination to raise the rent of these houses; and the Board of Guardians therefore endeavoured to obtain the accommodation they required without any public demonstration of their intentions. The paid Board of Guardians had afforded outdoor relief on a most wasteful scale, and the new Guardians were therefore obliged to proceed with the utmost caution; but it appeared from reports made to the Poor Law Commissioners that the relieving officers had full power to afford relief in urgent cases. The distress in that district proceeded, in his opinion, from the conduct of the former paid Guardians; and he considered that the appointment of Guardians by the Poor Law Commissioners, and the granting of outdoor relief to the ablebodied poor, were two of the worst evils of the present law. The accuracy of Mr. Lynch's report was denied by the Board of Guardians, and they actually appealed to the Poor Law Commissioners to send impartial persons to investigate the state of the Union. The fact was that paid Guardians and outdoor relief were throwing all the land out of cultivation. He did not mean, in speaking of outdoor relief, to say that when the people required it, they should not be fed, but that ought to be a national affair, and not be made to rest upon any one district. It certainly seemed to be the worst possible way of removing famine to pursue a policy which had the effect of throwing all the land out of cultivation.


thought the Poor Law Commissioners were wrong in dismissing the Board of Guardians, and that his hon. Friend (Sir L. O'Brien) was fully justified in bringing this question before the House. If there was one thing more than another in which that House ought to exercise jealous vigilance, it was when the Commissioners had recourse to a measure which was condemned by both sides of that House with reference both to outdoor relief and the dismissal of the Guardians. When the Board of Guardians were blamed so much for postponing their obedience to the mandate of the Commissioners, it was not immaterial that the House should know the expenditure which had taken place. The outlay for the year had been no less than 22,886l., a larger sum than the yearly valuation of the whole Union, which only amounted to 22,624l. It was rather hard, then, such being the state of things, to impute to the Board of Guardians any want of consideration for the poor, merely because they had taken a fortnight to deliberate on the best course to be pursued. The Poor Law Commissioners had acted most improperly and unwisely in dismissing the Board in the manner they had; and he hoped that the notice which had been taken of the case would make them more cautious in future. Under the circumstances, however, he should recommend the hon. Baronet to withdraw his Motion.


did not agree with the recommendation of the hon. Gentleman who had just addressed the House. The hon. Baronet (Sir L. O'Brien) had no business to bring forward the Motion on a night such as this, and to delay the House from going into Committee of Supply, if it was not a matter of sufficient importance to require a decision. But it was, in truth, a matter of the most vital importance to the people of Ireland. If the Board of Guardians had not conducted themselves properly, he did not seek to spare them any portion of the obloquy which ought to fall upon them; but, on the other hand, if the Poor Law Commissioners had acted in an unconstitutional and arbitrary manner, were they to be shielded by a majority of that House? The sole charge against the Board of Guardians was, that they had asked for a certain time to consider the ill-considered document which had been sent down to them from head-quarters; and it must be recollected that the nominees of the Commissioners had previously plunged the Union into pecuniary difficulties, and left it to their successors in such a state of disorder that there was no possibility of telling even the number of paupers. In fact, rations were drawn for persons who had been dead as much as eighteen months and two years, and for others who had gone to America. The vice-guardians left for their successors a debt of 13,000l., and no fewer than 17,000 persons in the receipt of outdoor relief, some of them being in possession of as much as forty acres of land. Surely this, at least, was an abuse which no English Member would stand up to defend. Such were the circumstances under which the elected Guardians asked time for consideration. Convinced that it was impossible to submit to the fraud and roguery which were inseparable from outdoor relief, they took steps to abolish it; and it was very desirable that they should have time allowed them to consider what was best to he done. They asked for a loan, but that was refused them; and the whole responsibility having thus been thrown upon them, they had discharged their duties efficiently and sensibly, as even the ordinary officer of the Commissioners had admitted. The Poor Law Commissioners had acted in this matter much as the Government had done when the measure was imposed upon Ireland. They had sent able men to inquire whether the measure was adapted for the country, and those gentlemen reported that it was not; whereupon they sent a Special Commissioner, a Mr. Nicholls, by whose cut-and-dried reports, the law was passed, and had carried desolation through the land. The ordinary officer of the Poor Law Commissioners had reported favourably of the Guardians, upon which they sent a special officer, Mr. Lynch, on whose inquiries, conducted without the knowledge of the Board, they had acted. But were Irish Guardians to be trampled upon, insulted, and dismissed by irresponsible Commissioners—and then the sole body of English Gentlemen to whom they could appeal refuse to hear them? He asked for simple justice alone, and he hoped that they would road the Poor Law Commissioners such a lesson as would teach them to be more careful in future.


said, he agreed in the recommendations of the hon. Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. G. A. Hamilton) in advising the withdrawal of the Motion, on account of the present state of the House. He thought the Poor Law Commissioners might have adopted other means, and interposed a longer delay before dismissing the Board of Guardians; and he thought also that the ratepayers of the Union had a right to complain of being again handed over to men whose former management of the Union had brought its affairs into the greatest confusion, and had shown their own total ignorance of the administration of the Poor Laws. He knew that in many Unions representations were made to the Government to get vice-guardians appointed, under the belief that that would lead to Government assistance being given; and he was rather inclined to think that some such influence had been at work in the present case. He thought that an inquiry should be made into the present case, for the correspondence showed that the Board of Guardians had made every possible exertion to do their duty; and he thought that more forbearance should have been exercised by the Poor Law Commissioners before they branded them as the only Board of Guardians in Ireland who were worthy to be dismissed. There might have been other means adopted by the Commissioners, further entreaties and further examination, before such an extreme step. It was not an uncommon thing for a fortnight to elapse before a Board of Guardians was able to agree with the Commissioners as to the facts of a case. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir W. Somerville) left out of the question the conduct of the former board and the feelings of the ratepayers; but ratepayers would feel that the Poor Law Commissioners were handing them over to gentlemen who ruined the union before. Though the question could not now be pressed to a division, he hoped the subject would occupy the serious attention of the Government.


said, that in the present thin state of the House it was very difficult to know what was best to be done. There seemed to have been a great exercise of power, and there appeared to have been also various allegations extremely injurious to the character of the guardians. He was very much dis- posed to think that they had been rash in confiding such powers to the Poor Law Commissioners, when he saw them used in the manner they had been used; and he took blame to himself for the share he had had in supporting the measure. At all events, the case was so clear that they could not refuse an inquiry. If one-half, or one-tenth, of what was stated with respect to the vice-guardians were true, there was ample ground for what was asked. He thought that two or three gentlemen, unconnected with the Union, would form a better Committee of Inquiry than one of the House of Commons. Probably the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) could promise such an inquiry should take place, and then there would be no necessity for the hon. Baronet (Sir L. O'Brien) to press his Motion.


said, that he was sorry that he could not comply with the request of his hon. Friend (Mr. Hume); but after hearing the statement of his right hon. Friend the Secretary for Ireland, he could not promise any further inquiry into the subject.


said, that he would not then press the subject to a division; but would refer to the subject again when the hon. Member for the city of Dublin (Mr. Reynolds) brought forward his Motion for an inquiry into the state of the Unions in the west of Ireland.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.