HC Deb 10 May 1854 vol 133 cc91-105

Order for Committee read.

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


said, he would suggest to the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Sotheron), who had charge of this Bill, that it would be much better to refer a subject of the delicate and painful nature embraced by the Bill to a Select Committee, especially as he saw that notice had been given of a great number of Amendments, in order that such Select Committee might consider not only the particular clauses of the measure, but the whole subject. Evidence might be taken before the Committee, and a satisfactory arrangement arrived at. It was evident from the petitions presented that no subject had ever made a greater commotion among the working classes. At the same time every one gave credit to the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Sotheron) for the kindness of his intentions, and the conciliatory spirit which he had manifested in considering any suggestions in reference to the present Bill.


said, he could bear testimony to the conciliatory disposition of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Sotheron), to whom he had introduced several deputations, who left him with the impression that he was only anxious to do good to the working classes. He (Mr. Bright) believed that a strong opinion existed at the Home Office with respect to some of the clauses of the Bill; and it was impossible for any Member who had received deputations not to see that the Bill, if passed in its present shape, would not work, but would only produce something in the nature of a revolt among the population of the north of England, who were deeply interested in the subject. He could hardly conceive, under these circumstances, that the hon. Gentleman would refuse to allow the Bill to go to a Select Committee, particularly as the subject was a most delicate one, and any concerned not only the money, but the feelings of the people.

Amendment proposed, to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the Bill be committed to a Select Committee," instead thereof.


said, he should support the Motion for a Select Committee. The question affected large masses of the community, and not only the Bill, but the whole subject, should be considered in a Committee upstairs. He had found by experience that when individuals or deputations were allowed to state their own views before a Committee, the latter were enabled to draw the just and proper line between the different interests. It would very much abate the anxiety out of doors if the Government declared in favour of a reference of the whole subject to a Committee upstairs.


said, he trusted that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Sotheron) would accede to the proposition for referring the Bill to a Select Committee. The Bill, though meant in the kindest spirit by the hon. Gentleman, would operate very hardly on some societies. The whole subject should be considered in a Select Committee, for there existed such a variety of different Acts in connection with it that the precise law was difficult to be understood. If the question were inquired into fully, the result would be increased confidence among the working classes, and increased desire to provide for their own funerals; and, at the same time, many of those mischiefs and deplorable occurrences which had arisen out of the existing state of things might be prevented in future.


said, he also must urge the propriety of appointing a Select Committee. He had not recollected so much excitement among the working classes for many years past as now existed on this subject.


said, that he had no objection to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, but he did not think it was desirable that they should enter upon the investigation of the whole subject; for the House must recollect that there had been several previous Committees of inquiry into friendly societies, and that they had obtained all the information upon the subject which could possibly be elicited by a new inquiry, The only effect of thus extending the labours of the Committee would be to defer that legislation which every one admitted to be required. It was the less necessary to do so, because he observed that most of the petitions which had been presented were directed against the 4th and 5th clauses of the Bill. Now he saw that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Sotheron) proposed to omit the former clause, and very materially to modify the latter.


said, that greater objections to the Bill had proceeded from that part of the country with which he was connected than from any other. Those objections were confined chiefly to the 3rd and 4th clauses, and if the Bill were sent to a Select Committee, those clauses, and not the whole matter, should be the subject of consideration; for with reference to the question itself sufficient information had already been obtained.


said, that the Bill had in fact now passed from the hands of its original promoters into those of the Government, and he therefore wished to know what were their views with respect to the course which the House should pursue?


said, that the hon. and learned Member was not quite correct in stating that the Bill had passed into the hands of Government. The only Amendment of which he had given notice referred to the 3rd clause. He thought that no case had been made out for a change in the law upon the point embraced in that clause; and his Amendment consisted simply of a clause taken from the existing Act, 14 & 15 Vict. c. 15. This Bill had no doubt created great uneasiness amongst the members of these societies; and although the petitions which had been presented abundantly showed that great ignorance prevailed with respect to its provisions, still when there was such an excited state of feeling on the part of great numbers of the working classes, he thought it was advisable that satisfactory evidence should be adduced in support of any proposed alterations in the existing law. With a view to such an investigation, he thought it was highly desirable that the House should adopt the proposition to refer the whole subject to a Select Committee. He was aware that there had been previous Committees and previous legislation on this subject; but the fact was that this had only complicated the subject, and made legislation more difficult.


said, that even in the quiet neighbourhood he represented, Bath, the working classes were very much excited on the subject of this Bill. He hoped that the House would adopt the proposition of the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Bright), and refer the whole subject to a Select Committee.


said, he could also bear testimony to the strong feeling which this measure had excited amongst the labouring classes; he should support the proposition to refer it to a Select Committee.


said, that it seemed to be generally admitted that the House was not at present in a position to go into Committee upon this Bill. He thought that, considering the nature of the subject, the parties who were interested, and the character of the interests involved, it would be advisable the subject should receive the most mature consideration before they passed a new Act, and he should therefore support the proposition for referring the Bill to a Select Committee. At the same time he hoped that the Committee would not be made the means of delaying that legislation upon the subject which all admitted to be necessary, but that they would strictly confine their inquiries to those points upon which sufficient information had not been elicited by former inquiries.


said, that so many Acts had been passed with reference to these societies that nothing could be more difficult for a practising lawyer than to tell the members of many of them by what particular Act they were governed, or even whether they were not exposed to the crossfire of two contradictory Acts. Under these circumstances, it was absolutely necessary that the law on this subject should be consolidated; and as he believed that this could not be done without further information than was at present in the possession of the House, he hoped that the whole subject would be referred to a Select Committee.


said, that, after what had fallen from the hon. and learned Member for Durham (Mr. Atherton)—the correctness of whose statements he was not at all prepared to deny—it was perfectly clear that this subject was one which should be taken up by Government. A private Member might introduce a Bill to provide a remedy for an existing evil; but it was perfectly impossible that he could undertake to consolidate a multiplicity of previously existing Statutes, and to prepare one which should embrace the whole law on the subject. It would be quite impossible to bring in a Bill to consolidate all the Statutes on this subject during the present Session, considering it was so far advanced. The question, then, was, was information wanted on this subject? He very much inclined to think that there were very few cases which did not come within one or other of the categories, respecting which evidence was taken several Sessions ago. It was at his hon. Friend's discretion whether he would accede to the proposal now made to send the subject back to a Select Committee—to refer only a portion of it would be completely idle. He thought the Government already in possession of sufficient information to enable them to legislate with effect. There were many principles in the clauses of the present Bill which had excited the greatest jealousy, and which must probably be altered in Committee; but this was a matter wholly distinct from the question of consolidation.


said, he must protest against the inference which had been drawn in some quarters from the return presented relative to mortality amongst children, as a libel upon the character of the working classes of this country. The return itself was manifestly imperfect, but it by no means warranted the suspicions spread on this subject, or the accusation which had been founded on it, and he should regard any legislative Act conceived in this spirit as an insult to the working classes.


said, he was prepared to assent to the proposal which had been made by his hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. FitzRoy) to refer this Bill to a Select Committee, with the view undoubtedly of securing a fair and satisfactory investigation of the subject. There were several questions arising out of it, which might with advantage be submitted to the examination of a Committee, some of which had been touched upon by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Henley), or by his hon. Friends near him. The first of these undoubtedly was, whether it would be expedient or useful to consolidate all the laws relating to this subject. This was a proposal attended certainly with considerable difficulties, as suggested by the right hon. Gentleman, but it was a fit subject for consideration, one, perhaps, more belonging to the Government than to a Committee, but on which a Committee without doubt might be useful, as showing all the inconveniences, whatever they might be, which arose from the multitude of Statutes, and the uncertainty of their application to any one particular case. With respect to the general regulations of these friendly societies, of course the Report of the Committee which sat some years ago would be referred to any Committee that might be appointed, and it would have the benefit of the inquiries of the former Committee, which would, to a certain degree, supersede further inquiries, or direct them into the proper course in which such inquiries ought to be conducted. The point, however, which had laid the foundation of the various proposals now before the House, was the question of the regulations applicable to burial societies. The point which had excited the greatest objection to the Bill before the House was that referred to by the hon. Member behind him (Mr. Hindley)—namely, its application to burial societies. This was a very painful subject, and he would rather avoid stating the opinion which he entertained respecting it. All he would say was, that the return adverted to by the hon. Member did not, in his opinion, bear out the conclusion which the hon. Member seemed to have drawn from it. The return simply stated that there were no means of ascertaining whether the parents of certain children were members of burial clubs. The hon. Member had put a construction on the return which it would not bear. Upon that question he was asked, in the early part of this Session, by a noble Lord opposite, whether it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to bring in any measure affecting it. He had then stated it was his intention to do so; at the same time, when the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Sotheron) brought in his Bill, and his hon. Friend (Mr. Bright) proposed an Amendment to it, that appeared to him sufficiently to satisfy the purpose which Her Majesty's Government had in view, and he dropped the intention of bringing in any separate Bill. He must say, however, that his own opinion was so strong upon that point, that if no other Member were to propose to the House any legislation upon the subject, he should himself feel it his duty to do so. So far from concurring with his hon. Friend (Mr. Hindley) in thinking that any legislation on the subject was an insult to the lower classes, he thought, on the contrary, that the honour of the country, the credit of the lower classes, their dearest personal and private feelings, were concerned in placing it beyond the possibility of doubt or imputation that any such suspicions as had lately prevailed in this matter could, by any possibility, be founded in fact. And, therefore, in the interest of the lower classes, and with the view of consulting their honourable feelings, and rescuing them from imputations which had, not of yesterday only, but for a long time back, prevailed upon that subject, he thought some legislation was absolutely required; and he should think it his duty, if the Committee were not appointed, in another Session to propose some further enactment on that subject.


said, he was sure he was only expressing the feelings of a great part of the community when he said that the Government, even this Session, ought to introduce a measure which would put an end to all inducement to the poorer classes to destroy their children.


said, he thought if the Government were to bring in any other measure, there would not be the slightest use in referring this Bill to a Select Committee. He could bear testimony to the excitement felt on this subject throughout the country; and it did appear extremely hard that for the purpose of preventing certain evils which might have prevailed possibly in certain agricultural districts—["No."] He had no interest in calumniating the agricultural classes, but he was perfectly sure that evils of the kind alluded to did not occur in large societies; and it appeared extremely hard that, on this account, restrictions should be introduced which would cripple the utility of nine societies out of ten.


said, it appeared to him that the observations of the noble Lord the Secretary for the Home Department were defective in one important respect. The noble Lord stated his Resolution, Ids unalterable determination, to legislate on this matter, and intimated that he had facts on which this legislation would be founded, but that they were too painful to be communicated to the House. Now, he apprehended that what they had to do there was to consider what was just towards the community at large, not what was delicate to the House, or to the feelings of the noble Lord; and if he had facts which would warrant the insertion of the clause they were now discussing, he thought that, in justice to the people of this country, the noble Lord was bound to state those facts.


I beg the hon. Member's pardon; I did not state anything about facts. I said the subject was a painful one, and that I would rather not state my opinions.


would then, if the noble Lord would allow him, infer from what he now said that the noble Lord disclaimed having any facts at all. Would the noble Lord admit that? [Viscount PALMERSTON: No.] Then he supposed it would be un-parliamentary in him to say, that he thought the noble Lord was trifling with the House in the course he was now pursuing. [Viscount PALMERSTON: I do not admit that, either.] He was sorry to see anything like a jocular spirit manifested on this point; and must remark, that he thought the noble Lord had been particularly unfortunate in his attempts at jocularity. This was no laughing matter. To the noble Lord belonged the merit of having, on previous occasions, extracted jokes from grave subjects. This was not a subject which the noble Lord should select for the exercise of his jocularity. This was a slur on the character of the working classes, and, being so, it must be a reproach to the whole nation. Would not foreign newspapers fasten on this matter, and state as a reproach to England, that we were obliged to pass laws to prevent parents from murdering their children for the sake of 31.? There had been cases in which persons had murdered others for money; but those cases had not been confined to the working classes, nor had the victims always been children. There was the celebrated case in which Madame Laffarge was the principal actress, and the House would recollect another case, which recently formed the subject of a trial in Scotland. Were there any grounds for believing that the destruction of children with the view of gaining money by these deaths was a general practice? Nothing of the kind. He maintained that there was no record in the history of any country in the world of a systematic destruction of children after they have arrived at an age when nature asserts her claim upon the affections of the parents. It had been alleged that in parts of India, and among our friends the Turks, there existed a system by which births were prevented, or children were destroyed immediately after birth; but he said again, there was no evidence of the systematic murder of children after they had survived the period of infancy. If parents would destroy their children in order to obtain 3l., they would destroy them in order to avoid the expense of maintaining them. If the labouring classes would commit such crimes from such influences, the case could only be effectually met by raising the general character of the people.


The hon. Member has been pleased to impute to me that I treated this subject with jocularity. I appeal to the House if anything I said could in the slightest degree bear out so unfounded an accusation. I said, on the contrary, that it was with the greatest pain I approached it; and if the House laughed when the hon. Member would persist in imputing to me, time after time, the very reverse of what I had stated, all I said was to deny that his interpretation of my words was well founded. The hon. Member put words into my mouth which I had never used; I was obliged to say I had not used them, and the House only laughed at the various attempts of the hon. Member to fasten on me language which I entirely repudiate.


said, he only rose to say that, having received various deputations during the recess on the subject of friendly societies, he had some acquaintance with the feelings prevalent among the working classes on this subject. There could be no doubt that some imposture had been practised upon these societies in the manner adverted to by the noble Lord, and the working classes, he had no doubt, would be glad to have any provision inserted in the Bill which might render the commission of such offences impossible in future.


said, he need scarcely say, in reference to the suggestion made, that he was in the hands of the House, and should be ready to acquiesce in what seemed the general feeling of the House, not to press forward the Bill on the present occasion, but to refer it to a Select Committee, The principal point on which the discussion had turned was one of a character which he thought would be much better discussed in a Select Committee than in a Committee of the whole House. It might be that the Government had evidence enough regarding the suspicions of which they had heard much, as to infanticide being extensively practised by members of burial societies; but although a great deal of evidence had been taken by the Committee which sat in 1849 respecting burial societies generally, yet he was sure there was no such impression abroad generally, and that there was nothing in the public mind which in any way corresponded with what he believed to be the impression in the mind of the Government. If there were indeed facts which could be adduced to substantiate such a horrible suspicion—if more than a proportionate number of persons guilty of this dreadful crime could be found amongst members of burial clubs or friendly societies, then let the evidence to that effect be brought forward, and let a Committee of that House be armed with the full powers necessary to elicit the facts. One circumstance that occurred to him in connection with the subject was, that at the assizes of last autumn, in Liverpool, the grand jury made a presentment calling the attention of the Court to the increase of this horrible crime, and the presiding Judge thanked them for their presentment, giving an opinion that some further legislation was required; but the very day afterwards a person who was charged with the crime was tried and acquitted. If they were forced to the conclusion that a disposition to this crime was to some extent fostered by friendly societies, then no doubt legislation would be required; but the question remained behind—what was the best mode of dealing with the subject? He did not think that the mode suggested by the Amendment would be the best way of attaining the object. The reason why he (Mr. Sotheron) did not introduce the clause as suggested was, that he believed it would be entirely inoperative; but the main reason why he objected to enact that the money assured should not be paid to the parents was, that he knew no cause why those poor, but industrious and provident persons, should not be allowed to insure for the object professed. Hundreds of thousands were induced to join burial societies, not simply for the purpose of discharging the expenses of the burial, but in order that they might have the charge of the funeral themselves, instead of its being handed over to the Poor Law authorities. He would ask whether that was not a sentiment which ought to be applauded? He confessed that, in agreeing to postpone this measure, he did it with considerable regret, for he had looked forward to this day as a means of disabusing several hon. Members, as well as persons out of doors, of a misunderstanding which they appeared to entertain with regard to the nature and objects of this Bill. Some petitions had been presented against the Bill which clearly showed him that the writers of them had never read the Bill itself. He had received a great number of letters, in which the writers stated that they had no idea that Par- liament should put its hands into their pockets or have the handling of their money; thus showing that they were labouring entirely under a mistake as to the real object of the Bill. Those parties appeared to fancy that when a society came under the operation of the law, from that moment it would cease to be independent. He believed it was the general opinion that the law was hard and unfair towards those societies which were not registered, every one of which was liable under the Joint Stock Companies Act to a penalty. Now, it was a peculiar feature of the case that regulations benefiting one society were found totally inapplicable or even adverse to the interests of another, and thus the difficulty of dealing with it was materially enhanced. Another difficulty was that they were dealing with purely voluntary associations, and the very moment they put on the screw in the direction that Parliament thought desirable, the association would at once be dissolved, and there would be nobody applicable to the bearing of the Act. If they were to deal with the subject effectively, they must carry along with them the public opinion of the community. The hon. and learned Member for Durham (Mr. Atherton) had recommended that the subject of consolidation should be referred to this Select Committee. Now, there were fifteen or sixteen Acts in force, under every one of which various societies had been registered, and if they consolidated those Acts, the operations of the societies for insurance would be materially interfered with, the powers as to the extent of insurance differing considerably. The Bill secured existing societies in the possession of all rights and privileges now enjoyed by them, and he was afraid they could not go beyond this. He would feel extremely obliged to the hon. and learned Attorney General if he would point out in what manner all those Acts could be resolved into one, and that single Act made applicable to each of those registered societies. By assenting to refer the Bill to a Select Committee he by no means considered that the measure was intended to be shelved. Apart from the necessity of some such law being enacted, he would remind the House that in the course of the present year all the Acts relating to friendly societies would expire. It was, therefore, essential that some legislation on the subject should take place. It would be unadvisable that the whole extent of the subject should be investigated by the Committee, as one wider in its dimensions could not be conceived, and a full inquiry, he did not hesitate to say, would find a Committee in occupation from that time up to next Christmas; but the object in view would be fully attained by sending the Bill before a Committee for examination. The existing law, he was glad to think, had answered admirably, as under it between 4,000 and 5,000 societies had been registered, and it had not been thought desirable to introduce many new provisions into the present measure, though some had been rendered necessary by change of circumstances, by new difficulties that had arisen, or by new descriptions of investment which had sprung up with the expanding industry and enterprise of the country. Upon some points now introduced for the first time, and particularly the very grave one to which allusion had been made that day, he was highly desirous that the Committee should have full means of inquiring, and if no other Member proposed it, he would himself move that they should have full powers of sending for persons and papers. The object of the measure might be stated generally to be the same as that of the former Act, the facilitating as much as possible the formation of provident associations of this excellent kind, without imposing any other restrictions than might be necessary for their maintenance and security. The magnitude of these societies could not be exaggerated. The members belonging to them were to be counted by hundreds of thousands. He believed the number of male inhabitants of England and Wales, by the last Census, was something short of 9,000,000. Of these there were of course a great number who had no necessity to belong to these friendly societies. The number of societies that were known to exist was about 20,000. These were all registered. The number unregistered might be taken at half that figure —making 30,000 societies. The minimum number of members was 150 to each society, and the maximum 300. This would give in the result upwards of half the male population of the country as members of some society or the other. But it was not the number only that was important. These individuals belonged to the very best and most valuable class of the community. They were the real support of the country. They were men who by the very fact of their being members of these societies showed that they entertained strong feelings of self-respect. It was on behalf of these his fellow-countrymen, who were men of sterling integrity and resolution, and who insisted on their rights, that he now pleaded, and he felt assured that he should not plead in vain. In conclusion, he would express his full assent to the appointment of the Select Committee.


said, he rose to discharge a very pleasing duty, that of expressing the thanks of many thousands of his constituents to the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down for the pains he had taken on this subject, and the courtcous manner in which he had treated the various deputations that had waited upon him. The country was deeply indebted to the hon. Gentleman, and, for himself, he would, as far as possible, avoid giving him any more trouble on the subject.


said, he cordially concurred in the meed of praise offered to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Sotheron). He was induced, however, to address the House because it happened that he was the foreman of the grand jury in Lancashire which had occasion to call the attention of the Judge to a case of what the grand jury considered to be infanticide, although the party was afterwards acquitted. It seemed then to be a prevailing opinion that the subject should be taken into consideration by the Government. About the same time the grand jury of York had a similar case. The chaplain of the house of correction addressed a letter to him (Mr. Brown), stating what he believed to be the main cause of infanticide. It certainly was never intended to throw any reflection on these societies in the aggregate, but at the same time it was supposed that advantage might be taken by some parties to make a claim on the societies' funds. He agreed with the hon. Member (Mr. Sotheron) that there was no class of people who deserved more consideration than those who were members of these societies. Still, he felt himself justified in taking the same view of the subject of burial societies as the learned Judges had done; but in saying so, he disclaimed the slightest wish to throw any imputation upon the honour and integrity of the great mass of the members of those societies.


said, he wished to make one suggestion. Great injury had been done to certain societies by the misapplication of the funds and by the misconduct of the managers. Expensive annual proces- sions and dinners, attended with a great deal of dissipation, were paid for out of the societies' funds. He thought the clause in the Bill to prevent the misapplication of the funds was not sufficiently clear, and that a penalty should be attached to such misconduct. He entirely concurred in the observations made by preceding speakers, as to the benefits which his hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Sotheron) had been the means of conferring on the working classes of the country, and he trusted the suggestion he had made would meet with the attention of the Select Committee.


said, he entertained a very strong objection to the 34th clause, which enacted that all penalties imposed by the Act should be recoverable by any person who should institute proceedings for them, and that one-half of the penalty should be paid to the informer, as that would be introducing among the working classes a system of espionnage, and would go far to destroy the character of Englishmen. He also objected to those clauses in the Bill which implied that the working men of this country could not associate together for the purpose of contributing to a fund for the burial of their children, without being liable to yield to the temptation of murdering those children for the sake of the money to be obtained for their burial. Such provisions offered a gross insult to the working people of this country. Although it was now proposed country. to omit those clauses, still it was in the power of the Government hereafter to reinsert them; it was therefore very desirable that there should be some understanding come to that the clauses were not to be at a future time reinserted.


said, he thought it would be very much to be regretted if it got abroad among the working classes that it was the intention of the Legislature to impose stringent regulations concerning matters about which they were very jealous, and which so materially affected their own private concerns. The object of the present Bill was to remove certain disabilities which at present existed. The Committee of 1849, on inquiring into this subject, discovered that these societies, consisting of many thousands of members, were subject to all sorts of penalties, and the object of the present measure was to relieve them from those clogs and to empower them to proceed against dishonest trustees and others. This Bill was, in fact, a great relaxation of former Acts. The last Act did not allow any person under six years of age to become a member at all. The consequence was that a great number of illegal societies were brought into existence. He believed the working classes were well satisfied with the treatment of this question by his hon. Friend (Mr. Sotheron); and he thought such a question might be much better dealt with by a private Member, to whom there was much greater access, than it could be by a Member of the Government.

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

Words added; Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill committed to a Select Committee.