HC Deb 30 March 1854 vol 132 cc72-81

said: I beg leave to request the attention of the House for a very short time, while I state some circumstances relative to my connection with the office of President of the Poor Law Board, and my present position with regard to that office. I fear it may be necessary that I should enter into some little detail, but I can promise that my statement shall be as short as possible. When I introduced the Settlement and Removal Bill, I had framed it, as regarded the leading principle of the Bill, exactly in accordance with the recommendations of the Select Committee of this House which sat in 1847. It was framed so as to be confined to the abolition in England and Wales of the power of removal on the ground of settlement. When I introduced the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Member for Midhurst (Mr. Walpole) inquired whether it referred at all to the removal of Irish paupers from England and Scotland to Ireland. I stated very distinctly in reply, that the measure did not refer to that subject at all, and that it was confined to removals within England and Wales on the specific ground of settlement. A few days afterwards, I made a statement precisely similar, upon a Motion brought forward by the hon. Member for Dungarvan (Mr. Maguire). When the Settlement and Removal Bill had arrived within a few days of the second reading, it appears that a memorial, numerously signed by Irish Members of this House, was presented to the noble Viscount at the head of the Home Department, in which, after referring to the Bill before the House, the memorialists prayed that this opportunity might be taken of "placing the Irish pauper in England on precisely the same footing as to removal with the English pauper in England." That was the distinct prayer of the memorial. A communication was soon afterwards made to the memorialists, that "in the opinion of the Cabinet, the wish of the Irish Members ought to be complied with." That decision was taken, and was communicated to the memorialists, before I heard of it at all. Undoubtedly, as the head of the Poor Law Board, and also as the person having charge of this Bill, in which I took a deep and most sincere interest, I cannot deny that, when I first heard of this communica- tion, I felt hurt and mortified. A little reflection, however, satisfied me that no personal discourtesy to myself was intended by those from whom I had never received anything but courtesy and kindness, and with whom I have always considered it a high honour to be associated. Even if I had not arrived at that conclusion, I hope I should have known my duty better than to allow myself, at a time like the present, to be driven from an important public office by any feeling of personal annoyance and vexation. But, Sir, I felt that there were some other considerations, not quite so easily to be disposed of. It appeared to me that I was likely to be placed in a situation of the greatest difficulty with regard to the future discharge of the duties of my office, and also with regard to the interests of this Bill, which, rightly or wrongly, I have very earnestly and conscientiously at heart. I had, myself, seen deputations from various boards of guardians, and had been questioned by them distinctly, whether the Bill would affect the removal of Irish paupers from England, and I had stated to those deputations that, so far as I was concerned, the question of those removals should not form any part of the present measure. I thought myself fully entitled to give that assurance after what I had myself stated twice in this House, and especially after what had been stated upon the same point by the noble Earl at the head of the Government in the House of Lords. It became evident, however, in the debate in this house on Monday last, that the Irish Members construed the answer which they had received to their memorial into a pledge on the part of the Government, that this Bill should be so moulded at some subsequent stage as to contain a provision abolishing the removal of Irish paupers; and it became obvious also, that other Members adopted the same construction. Now, with regard to the whole question of the removal of Irish paupers from England and Scotland to Ireland, my opinion was and is, that that question is not yet ripe for legislation. I have no doubt that the present law is in an unsatisfactory state; but I think that information as to the practical working of this law in the three kingdoms is still wanting, and that the public mind is not yet sufficiently informed and matured for legislation upon the subject. The Select Committee of 1847, in the course of their inquiries, touched upon it incidentally, and only incidentally, and they came to no resolution with respect to it. I think that before satisfactory legislation can take place with respect to these removals of the Irish, many facts must be ascertained, as well as the bearing of those facts upon the several systems of Poor Law established in England, Scotland, and Ireland, With these opinions, and under the circumstances which I have described, I could not help thinking that if I retained office, my character and efficiency as a public servant would be greatly endangered, and that the interests of the Settlement and Removal Bill might be irretrievably injured. Acting upon these grounds, and, I beg to assure the House, upon these grounds only, I sent on Tuesday last to the noble Earl at the head of the Government my resignation of the office of President of the Poor Law Board. In the course of the same day, I received from him a most kind letter, one passage of which (with his permission) I will read to the House. The noble Earl wrote to me:— I very sincerely hope you may be induced to reconsider the decision at which you have arrived. At all events, I hope you will agree to suspend the execution of your present intention until it be seen whether anything can be done to remove the difficulties connected with the present state of the measure to which you refer. Upon the receipt of this letter, I reconsidered the whole case very anxiously, and, as a man's own feelings under such circumstances are perhaps not a very safe guide, I determined to refer the matter to the judgment of two persons, whom I am proud to call my friends, a noble Lord and a right hon. Gentleman, both of them as distinguished for political and personal honour as any men in this country. The question I put to them was this:—Looking to all the facts, and to the correspondence which has taken place, are you of opinion that I may retain my office without injustice to my own character and efficiency as a public servant, and without disadvantage to the interests of this Bill? That noble Lord and right hon. Gentleman favoured me with their opinions, and on those opinions I have acted. I communicated the result to Lord Aberdeen on the following day, and I will read (again with his permission) a passage from the letter which I wrote to the noble Earl:— As your Lordship is pleased to express an opinion that serious inconvenience to the public service would be occasioned by my retirement at present, and as I find that the friends with whom I have confidentially advised upon this subject consider that I may remain, without injustice to my own character, I beg leave so far to qualify the decision which I had formed yesterday, as to adopt the suggestion kindly made in your Lordship's note, remaining in my office for the present. I feel, however, that I must request permission to renew the tender of my resignation hereafter, in case I find that I am unable to acquiesce in the ultimate decisions of the Government with regard to the Settlement and Removal Bill, and the other questions connected with it. Such, then, is the position in which I now stand. I hope I have not gone very wrong in all this; it has been my sincere desire to be quite right. The whole matter, however, is now before the House, and I leave it to their candid consideration.


said, that as one of the Irish Members by whom the memorial which had been referred to was signed, he begged to assure the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baines) that those who had the care of that memorial had not the slightest intention of casting a slight upon him by not sending it direct to his office. They considered it more advisable to send it to the noble Lord at the head of the Home Office, in which it must be remembered that there was an Irish as well as an English department. He did not understand the noble Lord (Lord Palmerston) to promise that any changes should be made in this Bill in order to deal with the Irish part of the question; but only that the Government would bring forward that subject in their own way. As the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baines) had given it as his opinion that there were not in existence materials on which to deal with this part of the subject, he (Mr. French) might remind him that there might be in the Irish department, which was entirely distinct front his own, materials on which the noble Lord the Secretary for the Home Department might be able to form an opinion. He was glad to hear that the services of the right hon. Gentleman were to be preserved to the Government of the country, and he could assure him that the Irish Members had not meant to cast any slight whatever upon him.


I am sure, Sir, that the House will be of opinion with me, that no man who has any knowledge of the personal character and high feelings of my right hon. Friend (Mr. Baines), can question that whatever course he, upon full consideration, might think it right to pursue, was other than the course which he and those who might advise hint might think most consistent with his private honour and public character. I am rejoiced that the decision of those by whom he has agreed to be guided has been such as he has just pronounced, for I can assure him that those who have the happiness to be his Colleagues in the Government would have considered it a great misfortune for them and for the country to have lost the benefit of his exertions in the very important department with which he has so beneficially for the country been connected. Sir, I am sure that it is unnecessary for me to say that in the transaction which led to the doubt upon the mind of my right hon. Friend, nothing could have been further front the thoughts of any of those who had anything to do with them—I speak most particularly for myself—than to do anything which could for an instant have impressed upon the mind of my right hon. Friend the idea that there was, on the part of his Colleagues, the slightest want of that regard and respect for him, individually and officially, to which he is so justly entitled. I happened to be at the time confined to the house by indisposition, and my communication with my Colleagues was therefore in writing. The moment I got the decision I communicated with my right hon. Friend as well as with those from whom the application came; but so far from its being the intention of the Cabinet, as I understood, that any change should made in his Bill, I distinctly stated that I requested my noble Friend opposite the Member for Tyrone (Lord C. Hamilton) to communicate with my right hon. Friend as to the best manner in which the object sought could be accomplished. I never for an instant considered that it was essential that the change with regard to the Irish paupers should be made in the Bill which my right hon. Friend had brought in for English paupers. On the contrary, I was always sensible that there were a variety of circumstances which might, on the one hand, render necessary fuller information before any measure could be devised, or which might require that the measure should be one entirely distinct from that already introduced. In conclusion I can assure the House of the satisfaction which the Government has derived from the decision to which my right hon. Friend has come; and I am sure the country will concur with us in thinking that it would be a great misfortune at any time, but more especially at the present moment, to lose the valuable services of my right hon. Friend.


said, that it was with surprise and with great regret that lie had that morning read the announcement of the resignation of his right hon. Friend the President of the Poor Law Board. It would be in the recollection of the House that when the present Poor Law Board was framed, in lieu of the old one, they were told that they were to have in that House a Minister to whom they might apply—a great and important person, not to be treated like the Mere subalterns of Government, and kept in ignorance of all its decisions. The House would also recollect the scenes that used to take place with the Home Department, then responsible for the administration of the Poor Law, which seemed to be thoroughly sick of Somerset House, and but too happy to vest the whole power in regard to the relief of the poor in the hands of an officer who was to be one of Her Majesty's Ministers, and to have a seat in that House. Now, he thought that the explanation which had been given by the noble Lord the Member for Tiverton (Viscount Palmerston) was not satisfactory to the House, even if it were so to the right hon. Gentleman; for the right hon. Gentleman had not been treated with the consideration which he (Mr. Duncombe) maintained was due to him on so important a subject as the non-removal of Irish and Scotch poor in connection with the Bill which he had laid on the table of the House. The right hon. Gentleman had stated that he had received various deputations on the subject of his Bill, and he (Mr. Duncombe) was aware that he had received deputations from nearly all the largest parishes in the metropolis—from St. George's-inthe-East to St. George's-in-the-West—and he was also aware of the kindness with which the right hon. Gentleman had always listened to what had been advanced by those deputations, and though the right hon. Gentleman had differed with them upon many of the opinions which they urged against his Bill, yet he had received them with so much kindness and urbanity, and had replied to them with so much frankness and openness, that he had gained the esteem and respect of all such deputations. Upon the honour of the right hon. Gentleman in this matter there was not the slightest imputation. No one supposed that he discussed this question with the deputations upon false premises, when he said that there was no chance of the abolition of the removability of the Irish and Scotch poor being included in the future policy of the Government. He little dreamed, any more than did the deputations, that there were these flirtations going on between Tyrone and Tiverton; that there was this Irish cloud hanging over his head. It was impossible that his Bill, or anything like his Bill, could apply to the case of the Irish and Scotch poor. Now, we were told that there could be no reflection upon him, because it was intended that there should be three Bills upon the subject. Why, what bungling legislation must this be. If we were to have one system of legislation, let us have one law which would apply equally to all the people throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland. Therefore, he thought this was no answer. What he particularly wanted to say, however, was, that he thought the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baines) had entirely vindicated himself from every charge or imputation of keeping back anything from the deputations which waited upon him. The right hon. Gentleman had been placed in a painful and false position, and so had that House, and so had those deputations which had had interviews with him on this subject, and so also had the public, and it was totally impossible that the House could discuss this question upon the limited view of the case that the Government suggested. Why, they were playing Hamlet with the part of Hamlet omitted, when they wanted to discuss this question of the removal of the poor on grounds connected with England and Wales only. The framework of the Bill must be entirely altered if they did not mean the poor of Ireland and Scotland to be removed; and if non-removal with regard to the poor of the three countries was intended, the whole question had better be postponed till next Session, that the Government might have time to make up their mind upon it. He (Mr. Duncombe) had great pleasure in learning that the right hon. Gentleman had at all events delayed his resignation; but, come his retirement whenever it might, the Crown would lose in him a most efficient Minister, and the poor a most sincere and considerate friend.


said that, as the success of a Motion he had made in reference to the Settlement and Removal Bill might have been instrumental in inducing the right hon. Gentleman to take the step he had announced to the House, perhaps he might be permitted to express the satis- faction he felt, in common with the rest of the House, at the honourable course pursued by the right hon. Gentleman; and he begged to add his testimony with regard to the ability, industry, assiduity, great courtesy, and kindness with which the right hon. Gentleman had discharged the duties of his office.


said, the frankness and courtesy invariably displayed by the right hon. Gentleman in his intercourse with Members on both sides of the House induced him to join heartily in the general expression of congratulation at the right hon. Gentleman's return to office. The real question, however, was, not the resignation of the right hon. Gentleman, but whether the Government were not, at the present moment, placed under the necessity of either breaking faith with the Irish Members or of differing from the right hon. Gentleman? They had been told that the claim to place the Irish pauper on the same footing as the English was irresistible, and he felt perfectly confident if the Bill passed for England without any provision in it for the Irish pauper, no Bill would be passed for Ireland. Could any Member of the Government give a guarantee that a Bill for Ireland would be passed? He would appeal to the noble Lord opposite (Viscount Palmerston), who was so popular among Irish Members, whether he had any hope of passing such a Bill? He would not appeal to common sense, because the noble Lord the Member for London (Lord John Russell) the other night objected to such an appeal being made in reference to any Government measure which the Irish Members felt justified in opposing.


Sir, as the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baines) has appealed to the sense of the House in this matter, it may, perhaps, not be considered impertinent on my part if I assure him that, so far as I can collect the feeling of hon. Gentlemen who sit on this side of the House, the right hon. Gentleman has made a statement which, in every respect, has left his honour untarnished. I also congratulate the House and the country on the right hon. Gentleman's resumption of that office which for a moment we believed that he had quitted. The manner in which he has discharged the duties of that office is, I believe, such as to entitle him to public confidence; and I am sure it has won for him the regard and respect of every Member of this House. I believe it may be said, moreover, that the right hon. Gentleman has caused the administration of a most unpopular law to be treated with respect by the country. Sir, I may also, perhaps, be allowed, as I am upon my legs, to state, on my own part, that when I heard it this morning, from a quarter which is now recognised as authoritative, though not so much so, perhaps, with regard to those individuals of subordinate rank as with respect to those who have the honour of sitting in the Cabinet, and who occupy a still more exalted position—I must say I did not feel that complete despair which I know was experienced by hon. Gentlemen who sit on both sides of this House with respect to the retirement of the right hon. Gentleman; for it is a very remarkable circumstance that within the space of much less, I believe, than twelve months, no fewer than five Members of the present Administration have felt it to be their duty to resign their offices, and have almost immediately returned to their posts. In the last spring there was a Lord of the Treasury, an officer of the Irish Government, and a Clerk of the Ordnance, who created considerable alarm by suddenly quitting the posts to which they had only just acceded. We had not recovered from the tremors of the spring, when in the autumn again something occurred of a still more appalling nature, although of the same kind, and a statesman retired from office whose retirement not only occasioned great consternation in this country, but throughout all Europe, and whose prolonged absence of three days from office may have, indeed, very unfavourably affected the negotiations which were then pending, and which have terminated in a most just, but, I believe, most unnecessary war. Now, Sir, we have been just threatened with the loss of one of the most respectable Members of the Administration; and certainly, had the country been deprived of his services, it would have been a circumstance which, I think, would have universally been to be deplored. Well, in all these cases, these five Members of the Administration no sooner vacated office than they returned to it. Sir, I have no objection to that; but what I would suggest to Her Majesty's Ministers would be, that some machinery should, in the course of the recess, be devised by which these internal bickerings might be terminated without their being made patent to this House and to the country. If these internal bickerings could not be reconciled, of course it would be- come a painful necessity that they should be made known to the world; but when we find, as is invariably the case, that from the preponderance of good feeling which exists among the present Members of the Administration, reconciliation can always be secured, does not the House think it would be more desirable that some machinery should be devised by which these painful expositions might be avoided. A court of arbitration would perhaps be difficult and doubtful; but it might be tried. In the present case, it appears that a noble Lord and a right hon. Gentleman have been successful, much to the satisfaction of the House, in inducing the President of the Poor Law Board to retain his office. I do not know who those persons are, and, perhaps, from their politics, they might not in general form the best elements for a court of arbitration; but the youngest bishop, or some other individual of great authority, might exercise that very beneficial influence which the country must desire to see exerted, in preventing a repetition of these scandalous exhibitions of discord. There is a very celebrated diplomatist, Sir Hamilton Seymour. He is not engaged at present, and it might be desirable that it should be understood that either the youngest bishop or some retired diplomatist of eminence should, in such cases as I have glanced at, be referred to as arbitrators. I make this suggestion in the most friendly spirit, and, if acted on, it might prevent the repetition of scenes which all must deplore, and which the Government must feel at this moment, notwithstanding their strength, to be rather awkward.

Subject dropped.