HC Deb 21 June 1852 vol 122 cc1067-79

Order for Third Reading read; Bill read 3°.


said, he now begged to introduce a Clause of which he had given notice. He contended that it was never intended by the Legislature that the Poor Law Board should have con- tinuous existence, and that, now the Act was in full operation, and uniformity was established, there was no necessity for continuing a Board which entailed on the country an annual expense of 250,000l. If the existence of the Board was considered necessary at all, it should be for one year only, in order that Parliament might have the opportunity of fully considering the matter next year, which, in the present state of the Session and the public business, it could not do. In all the large parishes like those of the metropolis the Parochial Board were fully competent to manage the whole business of the poor relief without any interference from the Commissioners; and though the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Trollope) had thought it right to describe the members of the Parochial Boards as illiterate and ignorant tradesmen, he (Sir De L. Evans), having had the honour of acting with those bodies, had not the vanity to suppose himself superior in any respect to those gentlemen of whom they were composed. The question raised by his clause was as to the right of the Parochial Boards to appoint their own officers, and whether the anomalous powers claimed by the Poor Law Board, of interfering with that right, should be allowed? For more than a century the parochial officers in the metropolitan parishes had been appointed annually by the vestries at Easter, and until lately the Poor Law Board had made no attempt to interfere with that which was understood to be the established law; but now, because the Poor Law Act gave the Board the power to issue regulations, they held it to be within their duty to make such regulations as should entirely annul the powers of the local Boards. It had been said that the ratepayers did not take the same interest in the matter as the vestries; but in the large parish of St. Pancras a meeting of 2,000 ratepayers had passed resolutions asserting the right of the parishioners. There was something anomalous in the powers given to the Poor Law Board. They had no power to appoint officers, but they had the power to retain or to dismiss them after they had been appointed by the Board of Guardians, and also to make regulations regarding their appointment, which in effect annulled the powers which the Poor Law Guardians now possessed of appointing their own officers. Although the Board did not claim the right of appointing, but when, as in the case of the master of St. Pancras Workhouse, they interfered to prevent the dismissal of an officer charged with grave offences, they effectually prevented the free exercise of the legitimate power of the vestries. If the Boards of Guardians were liable to error, the Poor Law Board was not free from mismanagement. It was notorious that the conduct of the Poor Law Commissioners in regard to the Andover case was so unsatisfactory that it led to a total change of the constitution of the Board. He looked upon the present attempt to continue the powers of the Poor Law Board as part of that objectionable system of centralisation which of late years had been the policy of almost every Government.

Clause— That nothing in this Act, or in any other Act, shall he deemed or taken to authorise the said Commissioners to continue in any way to enforce, or to issue, any Order by them heretofore made, or hereafter to he made, whereby they may have determined, or may determine, or assume to determine, the continuance in office or dismissal of any officers appointed, or to he appointed, under the provisions of any local Act for the regulation, or the government, or the appointment of the officers of any parish, which contains a population exceeding twenty thousand persons,

Brought up, and read the First Time.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the said Clause be now read a Second Time."

The House divided:—Ayes 29; Noes 98: Majority 69.


said, he should content himself with opposing the clause on the ground of its being extremely inconvenient to enter into a discussion upon the subject at this period of the Session. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman should have a seat in the next Parliament, he or any other hon. Gentleman might move for a Committee of Inquiry, or take any other appropriate course with the view of remedying any improper exercise of the powers of the Poor Law Commissioners. At the fag-end of the Session the subject raised could not be satisfactorily dealt with. The hon. and gallant Member had stated that the Poor Law Board cost the country 250,000l. a year: that statement was a considerable exaggeration. The whole Estimate did not amount to more than 221,361l. a year; and the whole amount paid to the Poor Law Board of England was 33,604l. The other items of the Estimate were for Ireland and Scotland, and for various charges incident to the management of the poor. With regard to the charge of the hon. and gallant Member, that he (Sir J. Trollope) had on a former occasion aspersed the members of the metropolitan vestries, and had spoken of them as a body of illiterate tradesmen, he utterly and entirely denied having done any such thing, it was true he had read a letter which was addressed to the Board, in which dissatisfaction was expressed at the manner in which those vestries were composed, but he himself had not given any opinion whatever on the subject. The very principle of a Poor Law Board was to secure uniformity in the administration of the law, and that could not be effected if Hoards of Guardians had the power to dismiss their officers without the sanction of the Poor Law-Board. There was no desire on the part of that Board to interfere with the Guardians in the election of their officers; but it would he a great evil if these officers should he made elective every year, or on the change of every Hoard of Guardians. It would be the means of converting those officers into the obsequious tools of each successive Board of Guardians, and would be a great prejudice to the public service. Upon every ground, therefore, he must resist the clause. If the clause were adopted, it would destroy uniformity of practice, and the independence of the officers by whom the law was to be carried into execution.


said, he should support the clause, and he would beg to observe what a strange state of things it would be, where the Board of Guardians had thought fit to discharge one of their own officers, with whom they were in the habit of having daily and hourly communication, for the Poor Law Board to step in and say, "No. you shall not dismiss that officer; you shall continue to tolerate him and communicate with him every day!" Such a system could not possibly last. It would be impossible for things to proceed at all if the Poor Law Board were to exercise such an authority. Therefore the parochial bodies ought to have not only the power of appointment but also that of dismissal. It was never the original intention of the law to allow of any interference by the Poor Law Board with parishes governed by local Acts. He (Lord D. Stuart) considered that he was called upon, after what had passed, to defend the management of the poor of the parish of Marylebone, and also the autho- rities of that parish, in respect to the unwarranted attacks which had been made against them by the right hon. Baronet. [Sir J. TROLLOPE: I only read a letter.] Did not the reading of that letter amount to an adoption of its contents? It was stated in that letter that owing to the manner in which the Board of Guardians were elected, all sensible and reflective men were overborne and put down. But was that the fact? The brother of Mr. Grote was a member of the Board of Guardians; the brother of an hon. and gallant Member of that House also belonged to the Board; as did the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. J. Bell). Were not these men capable of managing the parochial affairs without the control of the right hon. Baronet and the briefless barristers of Somerset House? It was said that the opposition to this interference of the Poor Law Board emanated exclusively from the parochial authorities, and that the great bulk of the inhabitants were not averse to it. But that assertion was contradicted by the fact that a meeting was held last week in St. Pancras, consisting of 2,000 ratepayers, who, with one single exception, were unanimous in their determination to resist what they considered an encroachment by the Poor Law Board, and to do everything in their power to maintain the local rights of the parish. Before he concluded he should like to say one word in favour of the poor themselves. In the first place, he considered that the Unions were too large, and it subjected the sick and the aged to great suffering, and sometimes to the loss of life itself in seeking relief at the workhouse. The subject had been mooted before in Parliament—


It does not require an Act of Parliament to lessen the size of the Unions.


thought that arrangements might be made that would ameliorate the evils that now existed. Then as to the forms of giving medical relief, they were unnecessarily cumbrous. If a poor woman obtained an order for the medical man to attend one of her children, and when he came she said to him, "I have another sick child, will you attend to her?" the answer was, "I cannot, without an order from the proper authority." This was a most unnecessary proceeding, and ought to be altered. Then, again, as to the confinement of the aged in the workhouses. According to the present system, the workhouses were converted into so many prisons. Why, when a man had given all the labour he could to society, and had become old, decrepit, worn out, and not worth a shilling, why increase the misery of that man by turning the workhouse, to which he had been at last obliged to go, into a prison? Had he not done as good service to the country by his labour as those who had fought their battles in the Army and in the Navy? and yet what a different system was pursued towards the pensioners at Chelsea and at Greenwich! He hoped that his hon. and gallant Friend would press his Amendment to a division, in order that the country might see who were for the ancient parochial constitution of the country, and who were not; who were those who, whilst on the Opposition side of the House, had supported those rights, had now, that they had passed over to the Ministerial benches, entirely abandoned them.


said, he thought it unnecessary for him to attempt to answer all the points which had been urged by the noble Lord; and he would therefore pass on to what he conceived would be the practical operation of the Proviso proposed. It must be evident to any hon. Member who was present during the debate on the second reading of this Bill, that the question now raised, though apparently differing in terms, was substantially the same as that then disposed of by the House by a majority amounting to nearly three to one. The Motion of the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster (Sir De L. Evans) might appear to be more limited than that of the noble Lord the Member for Marylebone (Lord D. Stuart); but the object was indentical. The proposal of the noble Lord in opposing the second reading was to exempt from the jurisdiction of the Poor Law Board every parish in England in which the affairs of the poor were now managed under a local Act; and the design of the hon. and gallant Member, by his Amendment, was indirectly to neutralise the decision which was then come to by the House, to confirm and perpetuate that authority, by withdrawing the only means by which it could be effectually maintained. It must be apparent to the House that it would be a mere delusion to continue to the Poor Law Board a nominal power to issue orders and regulations for the proper administration of the poor, and of the funds for their relief, if at the same time they were to be divested of all control over the officers by whom their orders were to be executed; the real question at issue was, should the power hitherto confided to the Poor Law Board, to exercise a prudent and a salutary supervision over the administration of the poor in places under local Acts, be continued as it had been for the last eighteen years, or should it be abolished? It was no narrow or unimportant issue which was raised by this Amendment. If carried, it would effectually annul and render void the authority of the Poor Law Board in upwards of 350parishcs in England, which were now under local Acts. It would affect not alone the parishioners of Marylebone and of Westminster, but 2,000,000 of the inhabitants of England and Wales, and withdraw from its accustomed control no less than 800,000l. per annum, or nearly one-eighth of the rates collected throughout the Kingdom for the maintenance of the poor. This sweeping and momentous change came not from those 350 parishes, nor from those 2,000,000 of the population, but from a few of the metropolitan parishes of London, and from three other places—Chester, Chichester, and Alver-stoke—which alone had petitioned the House in its favour; in all, but six petitions. Looking to the Reports of the Commissioners of Poor Law Inquiry, which formed the basis of legislation in 1834, and bearing in mind at the same time the object of uniformity, which was the leading purpose of that legislation to establish, it must be obvious that that object would have been more effectually retained by a general repeal of every existing local Act, and the inclusion of every parish in England under one large and comprehensive system for the assessment of rates, and the humane and economical management of the poor. But so tenacious was the Legislature of venturing on a measure so summary, such was the axiety to consult the feelings, and even the prejudices, of these localities, that, leaving the local Acts unrepealed, Parliament was contented to invest the Poor Law Commissioners with a power of supervision and direction, confiding the actual administration of the law to the local directors, in whoso hands it was resolved to continue it. Such an arrangement was no doubt irregular and exceptional. It defeated, pro tanto, the original object of extended uniformity, and it exhibited the anomaly of contiguous parishes differing in no essential particular in their internal condition and circumstances, yet administered under different Acts and by officers with different functions and titles. But the retention of this anomaly was in itself a concession to popular feeling, and in that spirit of conciliation the law had since been administered by the Poor Law Commissioners and their successors, the Poor Law Board, with such public contentment and satisfaction, as was attested by the absence of petitions and complaints. He by no means wished it to be inferred from this that the interference of the Board in places over which the locally constituted authorities had been left in the exercise of their own powers, had not occasionally been disputed, and attended with more or less of irritation on the part of those to be controlled. The very discussion now in progress was evidence to the contrary; and, in fact, to intimate this would be to imply that in parishes under local Acts the administration was so perfect as to exhibit none of those irregularities which were only to be kept in abeyance by perpetual vigilance, even in Unions constituted under the Poor Law Amendment Act itself. The records of Parliament were demonstrative of directly the reverse; and the Reports from time to time laid before the House, showed that mismanagement and abuses were as liable to occur in places under local Acts as in Unions administered under the uniform system of the Board. But these records attested at the same time that the authority vested in the Poor Law Board, for the control of that mismanagement, and for the correction of those abuses, had been exercised with such discretion as to insure the general concurrence of the public, and, when appealed to, the confirmation of the Courts of Law. If a parish was to be left for the administration of the poor solely to the unaided operation of its own local Pour Law Act, it must be presumed, first, that that Act was itself a perfect code, including every necessary provision for every possible emergency connected with its object; and, secondly, we must be satisfied that the local Act so to be perpetuated was the best of its kind that the Legislature could provide; at least, better in all particulars than the Poor Law Amendment Act, of the benefit of which the locality was to be deprived. On both points he would beg to direct their attention to a passage in the Ninth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission, which struck him as so conclusive as to dispose of the question of transferring these places to exclusive local management. The Report said, that to argue in favour of such a project was —"to assume that the constitution of the Board of Guardians in a parish under a local Act is of itself a sufficient guarantee against all abuses of Poor Law administration. But if any such constitution could have been found, the Legislature would probably have selected it, and made it universal. The very circumstance of the constitution of a Board of Guardians being confined to a single parish, and not being thought worthy of imitation, raises a presumption against its goodness. On the other hand, the constitution of a Board of Guardians under the Poor Law Amendment Act was deliberately preferred by the Legislature to any of the constitutions under local Acts, from all which it differs, and it could only have been so preferred because it was considered to be better. It may, therefore, he presumed to afford greater security against abuses than any one of the various constitutions under local Acts. Moreover, if any one of the constitutions under local Acts afforded that security, they could not all afford it, inasmuch as hardly any two of them are alike, and, in general, they differ as much from one another as they do from the Poor Law Amendment Act itself. Now that was a fair argument against the efficiency and quality of those local Acts, even so far as their limited provisions extended. With regard to the Motion of the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster, although the powers possessed by the Poor Law Board over the officers employed under local Acts were numerous, yet the hon. and gallant Member sought only to deprive them of one, leaving the others undisturbed; but the removal of that one was not without design, as the withdrawal of the power to dismiss would effectually neutralise all the rest, though left apparently intact. To the Poor Law Board it was of importance that it should continue to be invested with this power for the enforcement of its orders. Were the authority of the Board to be practically weakened by the ascertained wishes of the local guardians in opposition to them, the result would be that the pressure of pauperism would speedily break down every precaution of prudence, and sweep away the whole resources of the ratepayers. But to the Guardians themselves the continuance of this power in the hands of the Poor Law Board was a matter of no slight importance. It not unfrequently occurred that an order issued by the Poor Law Board might be highly approved of by the local Guardians, although opposed to the popular feeling of the ratepayers and the public. Its execution, under such circumstances, was always a matter to them of embarrassment and difficulty—a difficulty which at once was surmounted by an appeal to the fact that executive officers in such a case were under the direct control of the Poor Law Board, and bound to execute their orders irrespective of any local interference. A still more frequent and not less important case was that in which the Guardians themselves, although duly sensible of the incompetence or demerits of an officer, might still shrink from his dismissal, in opposition to political or other influences which might be exerted in his behalf. Here, again, the interposition of the Board was at once a protection to the ratepayers, and a relief to the local embarrassment of the Guardians. The best security which the poor and the ratepayers now had for obtaining the service of men of ability and integrity as local officers, was derived from the certainty which these men felt as to the permanence of their employment, and the assurance which they had that good conduct would lead to promotion and reward. Even now, with every prudent precaution for the protection of such men, they were exposed to perpetual attacks and frivolous charges. The Poor Law Board within the last few years had had to resist numerous attempts made by Boards of Guardians to reduce the salaries of their officers below a proper amount for their subsistence. But this protection of the officers in the enjoyment of a just remuneration for their labour, would be obviously incompatible with a power to be vested in the Guardians of dispensing arbitrarily with their services in the event of opposition or disappointment. It must be borne in mind that one-half the salaries of schoolmasters and medical officers to Unions was now defrayed from the Consolidated Fund, and that consequently the public possessed an effectual check upon the selection and retention of competent persons, through the responsibility of the Poor Law Board, who must account to Parliament for its proceedings in relation to such officers; and his opinion was that the safest and most beneficial depositary of the power of dismissal was the hands to which it was now intrusted. The Poor Law Board had exercised the power of control of which it was thus sought to deprive them, for nearly eighteen years. During that period they had had under their authority continually upwards of 14,000 paid officers engaged in the administration of the Poor Law, of whom 1,000 had been attached to places governed under local Acts of Parliament. During the entire of that period but twelve persons out of that number of 1,000 had been removed from their employment, and in no case did the removal take place in opposition to the wishes of the local Guardians; and in every instance such dismissals had been ordered on the ground of fraud or peculation, of incompetence, or of proved neglect—of cruelty, or oppression of the poor. Under these circumstances, it was difficult to discover a reasonable ground for the impatience of this exercise of authority as exhibited by the Guardians of the metropolitan parishes, from whom alone the present proposition proceeded. He (Sir E. Tennent) believed that in all the long period he had alluded to, since 1834, but one officer in any metropolitan parish bad been dismissed by the Board, and that took place with the entire concurrence of the local Guardians; and, so far from the power being objected to by the numerous Unions throughout the length and breadth of the Kingdom, applications were constantly made to the Poor Law Board to exercise its authority in the case of delinquent officers, with the full knowledge that dismissal must follow as the result of inquiry and the substantiation of the charge, Without, therefore, attempting to conjecture a motive for a Motion which, by itself, appeared unaccountable, he would content himself with inviting the House to resist it as unjust towards the officers whom it would affect, unwise as regarded the Guardians themselves, and totally inconsistent with the exercise of those powers which the House had already decided to continue in the hands of the Poor Law Commissioners who were responsible to Parliament for their application.


said, the only question was whether the Poor Law Act should be allowed to work well in the metropolitan parishes, as it had hitherto done, or whether it should be prevented by such interference as that which at present existed. The hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Tennent) said that the salaries of the officers with whom they wished to interfere were partly paid out of the Consolidated Fund; but he could assure him that the officers of the discontented parishes did not receive a shilling from that source. What be wanted was that they who had the power of appointing officers should, if they misbehaved, have the power of dismissing them, for unless that wore so great, insubordination must be the result. He hoped the Poor Law Board would not exercise the power of interference in the metropolitan parishes. The clause in question had always remained in abeyance until the question had been raised in St. Pancras, and it had been productive of suits at law and litigation. He hoped the Government would allow his hon. and gallant Friend to insert the clause.


said, he thought it very imprudent on the part of the hon. Member (Sir E. Tennent) to challenge those Members who represented parishes that were under local Acts by saying the present opposition only emanated from the metropolitan parishes. The truth was that a great majority of parishes in the country were equally opposed to the interference of the Poor Law Board, but they left the question to the metropolitan parishes, because of their having more experience on the subject. With regard to a parish in Gosport which was under a local Act, it had been favourably reported of by Lord Courtenay, and the people there were at a loss to know why the Board should interfere, unless it were to give employment to their own establishment; for, in consequence of the present peaceable and prosperous state of the country, the Poor Law Board had hardly sufficient for one half of their staff. But why was the Bill to be continued for two years instead of one? He was aware that some persons proposed to continue it for five years. But Government only asked for two. What was their reason? Their reason obviously was, that they wished to leave to their successors the difficulties attending the question, for they well knew that their opponents would be in office before the expiration of two years, and then they would have thrown upon them all the odium and all the burden attending upon the subject of the Poor Laws.


would only say that when charges were made against the parish to which he belonged, he did his best to refute them, and he would now support the clause of the hon. and gallant Member for Westminster.


said, that the powers of the Poor Law Board were very limited as regarded Unions, and it was only when now and then they caught an officer who was guilty of maladministration, that they were able to dismiss him; but the main power was in the Guardians. He could not avoid expressing his surprise at the present proceeding in the metropolitan parishes, when it appeared that the aver-ago increase of mortality in the workhouses of those parishes was from about 19½ per cent in 1850 to about 23 per cent in 1851; and in the workhouse of St. Marylebone from about 24¿ per cent in 1850 to about 30 per cent in 1851; and in that of St. Pancras from about 23½ per cent in 1850 to about 26 per cent in 1851. The House ought to hesitate to add to the power of such bodies who had failed in their duty, as was proved by the frightful increase of mortality in the workhouses.


said, that it was notorious that the increased mortality in the metropolitan workhouses spoken of by the noble Lord, arose from the casual poor who were received from the street, and had nothing to do with the working of the Poor Laws with regard to the real poor of the parish.


said, that the noble Lord (Viscount Ebrington) had made very sweeping charges against the Poor Law Officers of the metropolitan parishes. The noble Lord was always opposed to any measure for the benefit of the metropolis, such as the Burial Bill and the Water Bill, unless they were introduced under the auspices of the Board of Health and Mr. Chad-wick.

Motion made and Question put, "That the said Clause be now read a second time."

The House divided:—Ayes 29; Noes 98: Majority 69.


said, he would urge on those who had charge of this measure not to continue this system of interference with the metropolitan parishes, which had never occurred during the presidency of the Poor Law Board by the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Hull (Mr. Baines).


said, that the litigation with St. Pancras had been found by him in the office when he succeeded the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hull, on whom so many encomiums had been passed.


begged to say, that the present subject of litigation with the parish of St. Pancras arose in 1846.

Bill passed.

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