HC Deb 03 May 1855 vol 138 cc34-55

Order for Second Reading read.


said, he wished to state briefly the object of the measure, which did not propose to interfere with the operation of the existing law. He proposed to confer no new rights nor to take away any old ones. His sole object was to enforce the better carrying out of the present law, and to secure to the poor of Scotland those benefits which the Scotch Poor Law Act professed to give them, but of which they were in fact deprived. Previously to 1840 the Poor Law in Scotland was in an exceedingly unsatisfactory and uncertain state. There was a prevalent idea that the poor had a right to relief, but practically they obtained no efficient relief. Between 1840 and 1844 proceedings were taken in the Scotch courts to ascertain the power of those courts to interfere and prevent such relief from being altogether illusory and inefficient. The courts interfered with great caution and forbearance, and they decided that they had not only a right to declare that a person was a pauper, but that they had also a right to I determine to what amount of relief he was entitled. The court remitted the cases which had been brought before them to the several parishes, intimating that, if the parishes did not afford the paupers the relief contemplated by the statute, the courts would compel the parishes to afford such relief as they thought fitting. The consequence was, that the parishes, seeing they could no longer elude the requirements of the statute, gave these paupers relief, and so took away from them the opportunity of again appealing to the courts to determine to what particular amount they were entitled. The Government, however, interfered, and issued a Commission to inquire into the whole state of pauperism in Scotland. That Commission reported in 1844, but, instead of proposing to give the pauper increased facilities for getting relief in the locality in which he resided, the report recommended that the right to appeal should be taken away, and that he should have no appeal at all. That report, however, was not unanimous, one of the Commissioners, a person subsequently entrusted with an important share in the poor law administration in Ireland, having strongly protested against it. The suggestion to take away the right of appeal was thought by the Government rather too strong, and accordingly in the measure which they introduced the year afterwards, they did not carry out the recommendation of the Commission. From the beginning, in Scotland, the character of pauper had been strictly limited to a person who, from age, infirmity, or other circumstances, was unable to maintain himself, the able-bodied in Scotland never having had, and had not at the present day, according to the law as interpreted, any title to relief. The Act of 1845 in no way interfered with the description of pauper thus recognised, but left him exactly where he was. An entirely new system of parochial relief was, however, introduced. The Act established poor boards, and the levying of rates, and gave power to erect workhouses, and appoint inspectors—in short, the most ample machinery was established for taking care of the paupers, if that machinery was properly put in motion. It took away, however, the appeal of the pauper to the supreme court of law, giving him no appeal whatever, unless he could produce a certificate, signed by the central authority under the Act, declaring that the pauper had a good case for such appeal—so that the power of appeal was lodged in the hands of the central authority. It was obvious, therefore, that the whole well-being of the pauper was placed in the lands of this central authority, called the Board of Supervision. When the Bill of 1845 was before the House, it was opposed by Mr. Rutherford, since Lord Rutherford, and on looking back at the remarks made by his lamented Friend on that occasion, he could not help being struck by the admirable foresight with which he had warned the House of the evils the omissions in the Bill were likely to give rise to. The Bill was likewise opposed by Lord Panmure, then Mr. Fox Maule, who thus expressed himself regarding the measure:— If, indeed, I look on the Bill with the single eye of a landed proprietor, I would allow it to pass without opposition, but it would be a Bill not for the benefit of the poor, but to protect the rich from contributing too much for the maintenance of the poor."—[See 3 Hansard, lxxxi, 431.] He was prepared to show that the actual state of the case fully justified the language which was thus used when the Bill was before the House. The Lord Advocate stated in reply, that the object of the Bill was to secure proper relief to the poor, and the powers given to the Board of Supervision were quite ample enough for that purpose, being, in fact, identical with those possessed by the English Poor Law Board. The Board had not only power to inquire itself into all cases, but could appoint Commissioners with the same authority which it possessed itself. The House, trusting to these assurances, passed the Bill, but the obvious intention of the Legislature was, while it took away one mode of appeal from the pauper, to give him another appeal—namely, to the Board of Supervision—and that this should be a readier and more easy mode of appeal than that which he previously possessed. If, therefore, he could prove that the Board of Supervision had not acted up to its powers—if he could show that, as regarded large districts of the country, the Board had entirely failed in the object for which it was appointed—that there was no system of local inspection or control on the part of the Board—that, in fact, the pauper had practically no means of redress—that complaints made had been treated with contempt and disregard, such complaints as in England would at once have been inquired into by the Poor Law Board—that facts had been evaded and reports made founded on error, tending to persuade the Government that the Poor Law was put in operation when the contrary was the fact—if he could prove these things, then he thought it would be seen that the pauper was deprived of the privileges Parliament meant to give him, and that he would have made out a case for the interference of the House. He might be able to make out a general case of neglect founded on returns made to that House, and which, therefore, could not be disputed, but it was very difficult, in most cases, to be able to light on particular instances to illustrate a state of things an hon. Member desired to bring under the notice of the House. Nevertheless, he thought he could produce instances, founded on authority which no one could deny, making out a case of the grossest neglect, the grossest incapacity and partiality, and of the grossest attempt to do what Lord Panmure said in 1845 this Act would do—namely, protect the rich at the expense of the poor. He wished to say one word with respect to the system in England, because, to a certain extent, it bore on the system in Scotland. It was true that the laws on this subject in the two countries differed considerably. All destitute people were paupers in England, whereas in Scotland only those who were physically incapacitated were paupers; but, as far as the object or principle of both laws went, they were identical, and required that the cases to be relieved should be adequately relieved. In England, and in Scotland, too, by the Act to which he referred, it was conceded that some control was necessary over the persons administering the relief to paupers. In England boards of guardians were not intrusted to put the law into execution without the inspection or supervision of some superior authority. Under the Poor Law Act, in England, and under what, as far as he could learn, appeared to him to be the most excellent administration of the Poor Law Board, Assistant Commissioners were appointed, whose character and position constituted a guarantee to the public that they were to be relied on. The duty of these Commissioners was to visit continually the unions, and to take into consideration complaints made to them immediately. They were to make special inquiry into all allegations against the guardians, and into all charges against the union and parish officers, and if a Commissioner had reason to suspect any maltreatment of a pauper he was to question that pauper in the absence of the officers. Nothing could be more complete than such a check upon the local authorities. Beyond these safeguards, there was in England the force of public opinion, making it impossible for a case of the maltreatment of a pauper to be concealed for a day. Now, if Commissioners were requisite in the parishes of England, where there existed such an admirable protection for the pauper as public opinion, à fortiori were they necessary in the distant parishes of the Highlands of Scotland, where public opinion could not by possibility be brought to bear on the condition of the pauper. But was there any regular system of inspection in the Highlands? He had a return in his hands, presented to Parliament by the order of the House last year, respecting the number of inquiries made in parishes in the three counties of Argyle, Inverness, and Ross, since the passing of the Act of 1845, showing, far from there being any local inspection, that since 1847 until 1851 there had been no local inquiry made into the working of the Poor Law in any of the parishes in those three counties. The return showed that the first special inquiry under the Act by any Commissioner with powers similar to those exercised by the assistant Commissioner in England was in 1851, six years after the passing of the Act, when it appeared that Sir John M'Neill, Chairman of the Board of Supervision, visited those counties. That was not a spontaneous visit on the part of Sir John M'Neill, but was caused by a positive letter from the Home Secretary, requiring an inquiry to be made. As far as he recollected, only twenty-seven parishes in those three counties were visited by Sir John M'Neill, and his Report, indeed, appeared to be more of a general description in reference to the state of the Highlands, which were at the time in a condition of distress, than an examination into the management of the poor. There had been no inquiry since of the same description, except one by Mr. M'Kenzie, now a Judge of the Court of Session, and Sheriff of Ross-shire at the time, and it appeared that in 1853 he did make inquiry, but that inquiry only occupied one day. The Board stated that they had made inquiries on other occasions, but practically they amounted to no inquiries at all. Since 1851 up to the period of this Report—an interval of two years—it appeared that no local inspection had taken place. In fact, there was no local inspection of any kind. In the absence of any such inspection, the only appeal open to a pauper who was refused all relief was to the sheriff of the county. But in the Highlands—to which his remarks now mainly referred—the sheriff was often separated from the pauper by such a distance as to be almost inaccessible; in some instances the pauper would have to travel 200 miles even to get at him, and, practically speaking, therefore, there was no appeal at all. He had received a letter from a rev. friend of his—a person whose usefully spent life and philanthropic exertions to better the condition of his fellow-countrymen were well known throughout Scotland. He meant Dr. Norman Macleod of Glasgow, who, referring to this point, stated most distinctly that in the remote districts of the Western Highlands the appeal was practically a dead letter, and could not possibly be carried out. He put the case of a pauper on the island of Barra desiring to appeal against the decision of the Board. In the first place, he would have to walk some twelve miles to the ferry, and if he could not muster up money enough to pay for the ferry he would have to wait there until some benevolent person gave him a passage over. When he arrived at the mainland he would have some twenty or thirty miles more to travel. But the case of a pauper appealing from Islay or Jura, two islands in Argyleshire, which the rev. gentleman also instanced, was much stronger. In the first place, he would have to travel from twelve to twenty miles to the port where the steamer called, he would proceed by that to Greenock, and he would then have to go by steamer to Campbelton where the sheriff resided, so that, altogether, before he reached the sheriff he would have to travel 200 miles by sea and land, at an expense of half the amount of a year's allowance in the most liberal parish in the Western Highlands. He was justified, therefore, in saying that in very many instances the appeal to the sheriff was no appeal at all. In the case of a pauper admitted on the parish rolls, but with an utterly inadequate relief—a penny a week, for instance—the appeal was not to the sheriff, but to the Board of Supervision in Edinburgh. That appeal, however, was equally illusory. In the first place, the pauper had to go to the inspector—the person who had denied him adequate relief—in order to be furnished with a printed form of appeal; that filled up, he had to take it back to the inspector, who was required to write upon it his observations on the pauper's case, and then to forward it to the Board at Edinburgh. The Board had no means of ascertaining which was the true statement, that of the inspector or of the pauper, but it referred the appeal hack to the parochial board, and upon the answer of the parochial board it decided. In the Western Highlands the inspector was appointed by the parochial board, and they, of course, would stand by him, and under such circumstances a poor illiterate pauper could not have much chance of success in his appeal against statements of a well-educated inspector, supported, as he was sure to be, by the board of ratepayers to whom he owed his situation. He had now shown, he thought, first, that the Act of 1845 contemplated an adequate and efficient supervision of the Poor Law in Scotland; secondly, that that supervision did not exist; and, thirdly, that the means of appeal provided were wholly illusory. He now came to special cases, which he thought unquestionably proved the miserable state in which the poor were, and the very disgraceful state of the administration of the law. He must, however, in the first place, say a word upon the subject of eviction. It had one of two objects in view—perhaps both: either to get rid of the people on whose account poor rates had to be paid, or to clear the land for the purpose of letting it to one large tenant who paid a better or surer rent than a number of small ones. In either case the interest of the proprietor was the chief object. He (Mr. Ellice) expressed no opinion against emigration. Where properly conducted, it was beneficial to the able-bodied part of a redundant population. But indiscriminate eviction of old and young alike, of those who were fit for emigration and those who were not, was, in his opinion, a cruelty not defensible on any grounds of justice or expediency. Now parishes differed very much as to the relief required for paupers. In scarcely any Highland parish did the paupers exist upon the parochial allowance. That, from the smallness of those allowances, was obviously impossible. They depended for their existence chiefly upon the charity of their poor neighbours. Thus in a parish where eviction had not taken place, the pauper was better off upon 1s. allowance than upon an allowance of 3s. in another parish where eviction had taken place. In the latter they were deprived of the assistance of neighbours and friends, and were left with nothing but an inadequate parish allowance. It was very doubtful too, whether in such places helpless women and children, deprived by eviction of their usual shelter and means of existence, did not thereby become legally entitled to parochial relief. He contended that, under such circumstances, the proprietor had no right to complain of increased rates. The eviction had been for his supposed benefit, and he was bound to make up to the pauper the support he had been deprived of. The first case he would particularly allude to was that of the parish of Strath, in the Isle of Skye, the papers in respect to which were before the House. That was a case of eviction, the poor people there being turned out of their houses, he believed, in the winter. One death consequently occurred through exposure. The facts connected with the case had for two months appeared in the newspapers, they were communicated to the Board of Supervision by a highly respectable clergyman, and yet no notice was taken of them by the Board, though in England inquiry would have been made under such circumstances a day after the facts had become known. In these evictions it was actually found that the ground officer by whom they were made was the inspector of the poor, whose special duty it would be to watch over and protect their interests. Upon this becoming known, the Board of Supervision did issue a circular, in which they directed that no inspector of the poor should in future act as ground officer, but they took no other step until, on the 6th of February, he moved for a return on the subject in this House, and then, on the 27th of February, the Board issued an inquiry. That inquiry was not, however, such an one as was contemplated by the Act of Parliament. The Board sent down Mr. Peterkin, a clerk in the office of the Board in Edinburgh. He (Mr. Ellice) wished to say nothing against Mr. Peterkin. No doubt he was a very intelligent and active servant to the Board, but he was in a subordinate capacity, and had neither position nor authority for such an important inquiry. Well, he issued a Report, on the whole favourable to the management of the local authorities, with which he stated that he saw no reason to justify interference, adding that the parish had increased the pauper allowance by 1s. a month. So far, therefore, the poor had benefited. The evidence of the minister, however, and the Report itself showed, in his opinion, that a disgraceful state of things existed in the parish of Strath as regarded the relief of the poor, and it was evident that the Board had not instituted inquiry until they had been forced to do so. He understood that matters in that parish were, notwithstanding what had been done, in an unsatisfactory state, and he had lately moved for further returns that had not yet been presented. Upon this subject, he thought he was bound to read a letter sent to him by Lord Macdonald, the proprietor of the parish of Strath. Circumstances had led to that part of Lord Macdonald's estate being put under a trustee, who, unfortunately for the people, had power to do what ho liked. Lord Macdonald said— That the evictions had been in direct opposition to his feelings and wishes, and that he had repeatedly written to the trustee on his estate representing to him the cruelty of the measure he had in view, and begging him to send orders not to proceed with it, or, if he insisted upon such a measure, to delay it till spring, when the people would be better able to provide for themselves. His wishes had not been attended to, and these cruel proceedings had been carried out to the utmost extent of harshness. He (Mr. Ellice) could hear testimony to the esteem in which Lord Macdonald was held in the Highlands, where he was one of the few resident proprietors. He now came to another case—the case of the parish of Glenelg. In Knoydart, in that parish, an indiscriminate eviction had taken place, and it was rumoured throughout the country that the people were in a state of the utmost misery, the lives of many being endangered by the wretched state to which they were reduced. Now, here was an instance of the difference between emigration properly and improperly conducted. On another large estate in the same parish, belonging to a near relative of his hon. Friend the Member for Inverness-shire, a considerable emigration had taken place under the auspices of the proprietor. But in that case it was purely voluntary. Liberal means were given to those desirous of emigrating, but no one was forced to go. There was no hardship—no violence was used, or cause for complaint given. The consequence was, that the emigration was quite as satisfactory to the people sent out, as it could be beneficial to the proprietor who promoted it. But how was it in Knoydart? There violent proceedings were had recourse to. The people had no choice given them; their houses were pulled down over their heads. Two women nearly died under premature labour caused by the hardships they suffered. The people were reduced to the condition he had described, and which the proceedings of the Board of Supervision tended to protect and to conceal. In order that the public might be made properly acquainted with the facts of the case, the proprietor of a newspaper sent down a commissioner to make an inquiry upon the spot, and the description afterwards published of his visit was truly appalling. The state of the persons who had been evicted was found to be most miserable, and he (Mr. Ellice) sent the newspaper description to the minister of the parish, requesting his attention to it. The answer he received from the clergyman fully bore out the account which had appeared in the newspaper, of the condition of the people who were suffering from the evictions. In the course of ten days, however, he heard from the rev. gentleman that nothing had been done, and stating that, in consequence of something that had since occurred, nothing could be done in the matter. It was then that he ascertained that the Board of Supervision in Edinburgh had been applied to, and had sent down certain instructions which, he was led to infer, had had the effect of inducing the minister of the parish to change the humane intentions he had previously expressed. He (Mr. Ellice) then sent the case to the Board of Supervision, and for a month or two he was in correspondence with that Board, but could not get them to take a single step in the matter. All he asked for was an inquiry, but for two months, in spite of all he could urge, it was obstinately refused. But, fortunately, there was a good police in Scotland. The police represented to the sheriff that the state of the people was alarming, and the sheriff at once communicated with the Lord Advocate in Edinburgh, expressing his conviction that a case existed for inquiry. Instead of heartlessly refusing inquiry, like the Board of Supervision, the Lord Advocate directed the sheriff to proceed to the district and thoroughly to investigate the circumstances. In obedience to that order, the sheriff went to the district, taking with him the sheriff's clerk, the procurator fiscal, and a medical gentleman of considerable eminence in his profession. The sheriff, in his Report to the Lord Advocate, said he found thirty-eight paupers in the district, two receiving 1s. 6d. a week each, two 1s. 3d. a week each, and the allowance of the rest varying from 6d. to 1s. a week. The ages of these poor people ranged between 50 and 100. The sheriff also reported that the medical officer—one-half of whose salary was paid by a vote of that House—had, during the two years and a half for which he had held his appointment, only visited three paupers three times each, and twelve paupers once each, the rest of the paupers never having been visited by him at all. The sheriff stated that the houses of these poor people were of the very worst description; thatch was wanting in all of them, so that the wind and cold, snow and rain, found ample entrance. Almost all their houses were without windows, and some without doors; the wretched inmates were scantily and miserably clad, without shoes and stockings or change of raiment. The food was scanty and bad, and the potatoes rotten. Some of the paupers had nothing for their food but potatoes, many of which were diseased, and sea-weed. He (Mr. Ellice) thought this statement would satisfy the House that these unfortunate people were in a condition which it was distressing to contemplate, and that they had been deprived of the means of support which the law intended them to possess. He might mention the case of a man who was in circumstances of the utmost destitution, and who applied to him (Mr. Ellice) to know what he should do. He instructed the applicant to appeal to the sheriff, who made a permanent order upon the parish for his relief. The man's wife had, however, been in the receipt of 1s. a week, and the parish complied with the sheriff's order by taking 6d. from the allowance of the wife and giving it to the man. This unfortunate couple, therefore, only received the allowance that had previously been made to them, and the order of the sheriff was entirely evaded. The sheriff, having found from his inquiries that the state of the poor was disgraceful, and that the conduct of the officials had been illegal, arrested the inspector to answer four criminal charges for neglect of his duty. The explanation given by the inspector was, that he had acted under the orders of the parochial board, who gave him no discretionary powers; he admitted that, to a certain extent, he was aware of the wants of the paupers, and knew the allowance made to them was inadequate for their support; and he also stated that in some cases he had recommended an increase of the paupers' allowance, but that the Board decided against it. A second Report was afterwards made by the same sheriff, who found that, although some improvements had been effected in the district, one old woman had died in consequence of the privations she had suffered, and a man had been driven mad by the starving position to which his family had been reduced. During these inquiries the condition of the paupers was in some degree ameliorated, the parish having given them 3d. a week in addition to the allowance which they previously had. Still they were left in a state of deplorable destitution. After the Sheriff's report, the Solicitor General, as one of the law officers of the Crown, delivered a finding on the subject, in which he admitted the defective administration of the Poor Law, but declined to prosecute the inspector on the ground of a difficulty which existed in the statute itself, and the improbability of being able to procure a conviction from its being impossible to bring up the poor and infirm people as witnesses. At the same time the Solicitor General contemplated the prospect of something being done to remedy this state of things. In August, nine months after ho had first represented the state of the case, the Board of Supervision sent a Commissioner to inquire into it; and who was the person they sent? They sent—not an Assistant Commissioner, or some other impartial person—but they sent Sir John M'Neill, the chairman of the Board of Supervision in Edinburgh, and who was responsible for the management and conduct of the Poor Law Board. Sir John M'Neill was the last person who should have been intrusted with that inquiry, and his Report must of necessity be looked at with suspicion. He was sorry to allude to persons; but this was a grave matter, and he should not be doing his duty if he refrained from making a full statement of facts. In the inquiry by Sir John M'Neill no ground ought to have existed for a suspicion of partiality. But the result would show that the inquiry was not conducted in that spirit of impartiality which the case demanded. The first thing he did was to send for him (Mr. Ellice) to give evidence in the matter; and, though he knew nothing personally of the circumstances, and had originally made his representation solely on the authority of others, Sir John M'Neill subjected him to examination, and endeavoured to get him to make admissions and arguments that could possibly have nothing to do with the case. Accordingly a good deal of Sir John M'Neill's Report was taken up with meeting statements and opinions that he (Mr. Ellice) had made, and this could only have the effect of involving the facts in perplexity. He also examined paupers and some of the respectable people of the district, from whom, considering the prejudices they entertained regarding the Poor Law and the position of the paupers, he was likely to get evidence that should be received with caution. The Roman Catholic priest, however, who had distributed the funds subscribed for the poor people, was not summoned to give evidence before Sir John M'Neill, and did not give evidence. It was true he was by accident absent from his parish at the time, but a note would have reached him sooner than it reached him (Mr. Ellice). That gentleman would have attended the inquiry if he had had the slightest knowledge of its taking place. Beyond this Sir John M'Neill entirely evaded the sheriff's report to the Lord Advocate, and the cases there established. He took no notice of the fact that the inspector had been criminally charged with neglect of particular paupers or of the cases of those paupers. In fact he ignored those judicial proceedings—the decision of the Solicitor General, which had forced the Board to order an inquiry. He called none of the parties who had, in their official capacity, visited the paupers in winter, and of whose impartiality there could be no doubt. In short, the only witnesses on whom Sir John M'Neill relied belonged to a particular class, whose interests were identical with those of the parochial board, and who, therefore, could not be depended on for unprejudiced evidence. It was not surprising, therefore, that he arrived at an extraordinary conclusion. His report was, that the parish was in a good state, and he expressed his conviction that there was danger to the welfare of the working population, arising from the facility of obtaining parochial relief, and the increasing frequency with which they already sought it. Instead, therefore, of making these poor people aware that they had a right by law to be provided for, Sir John M'Neill stated that everything should be done to discourage relief and to support the parochial board. Mr. Peterkin, clerk of the Board of Supervision, expressed an opinion which Sir John M'Neill quoted, and was therefore responsible for, that the condition of the paupers appeared not only as comfortable, but often better than that of paupers in large towns. What, then, was the House to think of the two Reports—one by the sheriff, the administrator of justice in Inverness-shire, and the other by Sir John M'Neill, who made a Report which, in effect, amounted to a statement that the sheriff had told a falsehood, and that the sheriff and the respectable gentlemen who coincided with him were in a conspiracy? What did the Government intend to do in such a case? They could not leave those two men in responsible situations, remaining under a doubt as to which of their statements was true. Either the sheriff should be removed from his situation, or Sir John M'Neill should be dismissed from the post of Chairman of the Board of Supervision. He wanted to know, too, what was to be done with the inspector whom Sir John M'Neill praised, and whom the sheriff had put under arrest? This was a serious matter. He made no charges—he stated no facts of his own authority. He could have adduced other cases, but he now confined himself to those already established on the printed records of that House, and to which every hon. Member had access. Those facts could not be controverted or got rid of, and he did not see how the Government could give the question the go-by. He now thought he need make no apology for asking the House to read his Bill a second time. The Bill proposed that inspectors of character and position should be appointed to superintend the local administration of the Scotch Poor Law, having analogous powers with those exercised by the Poor Law Inspectors in England. They should be personally wholly independent of the Board of Supervision, and only subject to it as regarded instructions as to the way they should perform their duty. It was the object of the Bill to secure a regular visitation of the different parishes, a month's notice being given of the visits of the inspectors, who would have power to call for documents and examine persons on oath. He did not desire that any special power of interference should be given them, but only that they should satisfy themselves of what was going on in the different parishes, and make reports to the Central Board, which might then interfere if necessary. As a check on the Central Board, he proposed that abstracts of the reports of the inspectors should be made to Parliament. The duty of the inspectors would be, not to interfere with the existing law, but to see that it was properly administered in districts removed from the influence of public opinion. He proposed that these inspectors should be appointed, not by the Central Board of Supervision—for such an arrangement would be useless after what had taken place—but by the Home Secretary. He understood that the Lord Advocate intended to oppose this Bill, but if the right hon. and learned Lord would suggest any other course—if he would promise him a Committee, before which he could prove his case—he should be content. His only wish was to see justice done, and so long as the case was not evaded he should not complain. All the statements which he had made to-night were contained in printed papers lying on the table of the House, and they could not therefore be got rid of. In the face of such a state of things he could not conceive that any Government would expose itself to the odium of standing by idle, and he felt convinced that sooner or later something must be done to remedy the evils which he had described.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


said, he believed that the hon. Member (Mr. E.Ellice) had considerably exaggerated the present condition of the districts in question; but it was not necessary for him (the Lord Advocate), with regard to the course which he recommended the House to take respecting this Bill, to comment in detail on the statements of the hon. Member. He could assure him that the ideas which he (Mr. E. Ellice) entertained with regard to the working of the poor law, and the facilities given to paupers to appeal against the decisions of the Poor Law Inspectors, were exaggerated in the extreme. He (the Lord Advocate) sat as Solicitor General for a time on the Board of Supervision, and he could bear testimony not only to the exceeding ability and unwearied industry of Sir John M'Neill, who presided over that Board, but to the many hours which he devoted to the consideration of appeals from paupers in all parts of Scotland. If the hon. Gentleman would only look at the minutes which were contained in the last Report of the Board of Supervision, he would see with what careful anxiety those appeals were considered, and he would also find that many cases were remitted even more than once to the Board below, because the Board of Supervision was not satisfied, when the amount of relief was increased, that that increase was sufficient. The hon. Gentleman had dwelt at considerable length on what he thought were the defects of the existing system. He (the Lord Advocate) did not mean to follow him into that matter. He was very far from saying that the Scotch poor law was a perfect system, or that there were not parts of it which required to be amended. No poor law that he had ever heard of was a perfect system. It was a misfortune to be under the necessity of having a poor law, and it was a greater misfortune that that necessity had always a tendency to increase. As he stated when this Bill was brought in, he did not think it would be expedient to disturb the settlement which was made in 1845, unless they saw their way clearly to an efficient substitute. His simple objection to this Bill was, that it was not in the slightest degree required, as the powers contained in the present law were quite sufficient to accomplish the purpose aimed at by this Bill. Further, ho did not think that it was in the least degree calculated to produce the effect or the object at which the hon. Gentleman aimed. The 11th section of the existing Act enabled the Board of Supervision, with the consent of one of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State, or of the Lord Advocate of Scotland, to appoint some person or persons, not being a member of the Board or of the College of Advocates, to act as a Commission or as Commissioners for the purpose of making a special inquiry into the condition of the poor in any district in Scotland, and to report thereon to the Board of Supervision. Whenever a Secretary of State believed that there was ground for inquiring into the administration of the poor law, he might send a person to make an inquiry, and to report thereon. The Bill of the hon. Gentleman provided that special inspectors should be appointed, but their appointment would necessarily cast a slur upon the administration of the Board of Supervision; and before the House consented to such a course, they ought to consider whether there was any ground which would justify it. He thought it was unfortunate that there was no direct representative of the Board of Supervision in that House to answer the observations of the hon. Gentleman. He did not think that he was called upon to take their part in this contest. On the contrary, having other functions to perform with regard to the matter, he should decline taking one side or the other; but, at the same time, he was not satisfied from anything that had been said by the hon. Gentleman that there was any ground for the strong and sweeping charges which he had made against the Board of Supervision. That Board did not consist simply of Sir John M'Neill, It comprehended not only that gentleman, but the sheriffs of three counties, who had always been able and intelligent men, and attended most sedulously to the business entrusted to them. That was all that he (the Lord Advocate) meant to say with respect to the general question. With regard to the more immediate matter referred to by the hon. Member for St. Andrew's, that stood on a very different footing. He alluded, of course, to the state of the Highlands, and it was impossible not to see that there were elements there of very considerable importance, which gave rise to feelings both of distrust and anxiety. In the first place, there had been a failure of the potato crop. Then there were what the hon. Gentleman called evictions—that was to say, the owners of property had exercised a right of which it was impossible to deprive them. The poor cottars had been turned out, not by the poor law, certainly, nor by any defect in any other law that he was aware of. Next, they had to consider the Highland character. Every one who was acquainted with the Highlands must admit that they were indisposed to exertion, and were rootedly attached to their own soil. That attachment, no doubt, if properly directed, might be made an instrument of great good to the Highlanders; but when they were turned out of their dwellings it made the administration of the poor law, with regard to them, a matter of great difficulty. Sir John M'Neill said that the giving of indiscriminate relief to such unfortunate persons encouraged them to rely on eleemosynary aid, instead of on their own exertions. There could be no doubt that it would have been very undesirable to have given them indiscriminate relief, but he (the Lord Advocate) did not mean to deny that some very distressing and unfortunate cases had arisen. There was, in particular, that case with respect to which he ordered an inquiry, and which, notwithstanding the report of Sir John M'Neill, he still thought the inspector and the Parochial Board ought to have taken care to have remedied. The real difference between the sheriff and Sir John M'Neill was the constructions which had been put upon the Poor Relief Act by the Parochial Board and by the Board of Supervision. He (the Lord Advocate) thought it right to state, clearly and distinctly, that he did not approve of the stringent interpretation which Sir John M'Neill had put on that Act. Sir John M'Neill stated, in his report, that unless a pauper applied for relief, the inspector had no duty to perform in regard to him. If that was the duty of the inspector, Sir John M'Neill was perfectly right with respect to the whole of his report, and there had been no neglect on the part of the inspector. But what appeared to him (the Lord Advocate) to be the most unfavourable feature of the case was this, that, although there was no application for relief, there was distress which was known to the inspector and to the local Board, and which, he thought, they ought to have remedied. This Bill was, in his opinion, rather too crude to be engrafted on the poor law system of Scotland, and he would suggest that the hon. Member, who had done good service in bringing the question under the consideration of the House, should content himself with that proceeding, and refrain from persevering with the measure. In the absence of Sir John M'Neill on an important mission, he did not wish to pledge the Government to a particular course; hut if his hon. Friend would leave the question in his hands, he would promise to procure for it an early and careful consideration.


said, that much of what had been stated by the hon. Member for St. Andrew's, with regard to the administration of the poor law in Scotland, demanded the serious attention of Government. He should, however, advise his hon. Friend, after the statement of the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate, to defer to his request, and leave the matter in the hands of Government. If a sufficient remedy were not brought forward by Government, it would then be open to the hon. Member to introduce a further measure on the subject. When he found the allowances to poor and infirm persons from 1s. to 6d. a week, he felt it was high time that a more efficient supervision of the poor in certain districts should take place. Had such instances of distress and misery occurred in Ireland or England, where the people were not quite so passive as they were in Scotland, as those which the hon. Member had represented to-night, they would not have so long remained unnoticed, and if the Government failed to do anything to remove the evil in the course of the Session, the present measure should certainly be revived. Had such cases as those of the Highlands occurred in England, the Poor Law Board would not have allowed twenty-four hours to have elapsed before they would have been inquired into; but the real cause of the evil was the want of a proper inspection. It would appear that in some parishes an inspection of the poor actually did not take place for two or three years together; whereas, in England, an inspection took place at least once in every month. Such a state of things as that which appeared to prevail in Scotland, where the relief was sometimes no more than 6d. a week, demanded an immediate remedy, and he called upon the Government to apply it.


said, that it was notorious that many of the inspectors in Scotland had interests directly opposed to those of the poor, and it was to be hoped that, in future arrangements that might be made with a view to amend the poor law system in that country especial care would be taken to remove from office persons who were so circumstanced that they could scarcely be expected to act with impartiality. He believed that it was but too true that there were gross abuses and most serious defects in the administration of the poor laws in Scotland, and that there was reason to apprehend that the poor did not receive anything like the allowance of food or relief which ought to be awarded to them. He had confidence in the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate's declaration that the subject should receive his consideration, and he had no doubt he would exert himself to provide a remedy for the evils which at present existed. He hoped, therefore, his hon. Friend would withdraw his Bill for the present; hut, if nothing were done in the matter, he would promise to give his support either to this or any other Bill which he might introduce on the subject.


said, in the course of the debate many reflections had been cast upon the conduct of Sir John M'Neill and the inspectors towards the poor, and more especially in reference to the parish of Glenelg. Now, what were the facts more immediately concerning those parties to whom the hon. Member for St. Andrew's (Mr. E. Ellice) had referred? It appeared that a class of persons called "squatters" had settled themselves upon property in the parish of Glenelg without paying any rent. It was intimated to them that if they would remove they should be provided with a free passage to Canada, and that no demand would be made upon them for their arrears of rent, amounting to about 1,500l. A number of families, amounting to about 400 persons, accepted this very liberal proposal, and their passage, clothing, bedding, &c., were provided at a cost of 1,700l. Four or five families were unable to go, and these were not ejected. Some, however, refused to embark, and continued to occupy the houses which they had been summoned to vacate. Against these legal proceedings were resorted to, and their houses were pulled down, but they were allowed to retain their cattle, crops, and other property, and no demand was made upon any of them for rent, except in one instance. These were the parties whose case the hon. Member for St. Andrew's had brought before the House as a grievance. The charge of harshness and cruelty on the part of Mr. Ewing Campbell, the inspector, towards the poor of the parish of Glenelg was completely met by the testimony of the Rev. Mr. Macrae, the minister of the parish, of Mr. Macleod, and other witnesses who were examined by Sir John M'Neill. The Rev. Mr. Macrae was asked what was his opinion of the manner in which Mr. Campbell performed his duties, and his answer was, that he considered he had performed them faithfully, diligently, and humanely, and he believed that the parochial board had on more than one occasion expressed their high approbation of his conduct. He had no reason to believe that Mr. Campbell had at any time wilfully misrepresented the circumstances of a pauper to the parochial board. Mr. Macleod said he considered Mr. Campbell to have performed his duty in a humane manner towards the poor, and he believed that the people thought so too. The whole evidence went to show that the inspector did his duty not only to the poor and to the ratepayers, but also to the parochial board. It was his opinion that his hon. Friend had taken up this question without that examination which it deserved. He could wish that his hon. Friend would not press his measure to a division until every Member had had an opportunity of reading the last annual Report of the Board of Supervision for the relief of the poor in Scotland. The pauper in Scotland had greater facilities for compelling relief than in England, for if it was refused to him he might appeal to the Board of Supervision, who, if the parochial authorities still persisted in their refusal, gave him the power of bringing his case before a legal tribunal without any expense, whereas in England no such power was given, and Sir John M'Neill in his Report had stated that from May, 1853, to May, 1854, not a single pauper residing in Glenelg had complained that the relief granted was inadequate. He had also stated that the rapid increase of pauperism, from one in seventy of the population to one in fifteen of the whole parish, and to one in ten in Knoydart, while the proportion in Ireland was reduced to one in ninety-one, would alone have been strong presumptive evidence that both in its amount and in its form the relief afforded to the poor was too attractive to the labourer. The amount of poor relief in that parish, according to Sir John M'Neill's Report was 11½ per cent on the actual rental, and 7s.d. per head upon its present population. It must be remembered, too, that many of those who had to pay the rate were, as respected their condition in life, raised but little above the persons receiving relief. All these circumstances led to the conclusion that the poor were not either harshly or unjustly treated, as had been alleged; and, feeling that reflections had been made upon a gentleman of high honour and integrity, whose character had been unjustly assailed he thought it his duty to take the present opportunity of making these remarks in that gentleman's vindication.


said, he was satisfied that Sir John M'Neill was correct in stating that great difficulty existed from the peculiar circumstances of the country, but, with respect to the statement that the rate of relief given to the poor, varying from 1s. to 1s. 6d. a week, offered great inducements to the labouring class to embrace a life of pauperism; the truth was, that the able-bodied men were not entitled to that relief, and in the case of the parish of Glenelg it related to poor people whose ages varied from fifty to one hundred years, the average being seventy-six. The Report of the sheriff showed, however, the necessity of some further inspection, and the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate referred to the power in the Act of Parliament to cause an inspection from time to time. But that inspection only lasted forty days, and the remedy required was, as had been pointed out, a constant superintendence, like that which existed in England. What was wanted in the Highlands was, that the people should feel confident that they enjoyed the rights which the law gave them. In former days they had been ruled by the lairds, without much regard for the law, and a feeling had grown up that they could get no redress for any wrong. He was very anxious that justice should be done to the poor and infirm, for if scenes like those reported to have taken place were allowed to go on, a strong feeling of indignation would be raised in England, which would lead public opinion to insist upon some change, and this change might be carried further than the people of Scotland desired.


said, that after the assurance which had been given by the Government with reference to the subject with which his Bill proposed to deal, he had no difficulty in at once consenting to withdraw it.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn;—Bill withdrawn.