HC Deb 16 June 1857 vol 145 cc1894-9

rose to call the attention of the House to the present state of the Workhouse System in Ireland, and in connection therewith, to the laws relating to Medical Charities and the Relief of the Sick Poor, and to move for a Select Committee to take the subject into consideration and report thereupon. The hon. Gentleman commenced by contrasting the deplorable condition of Ireland in 1849, when the last Committee sat on this question, with the improved circumstances of that country at the present moment, and proceeded to contend that the time had arrival when the Irish Poor Law system should again undergo a thorough investigation. In 1849 Ireland was suffering from three years continued famine, and great alarm was spread through the length and breadth of the country by reason of the destitution which prevailed. At the time when that Committee sat, over one million of persons had been relieved. Out of 131 unions, 117 bad received assistance, and over 500,000 houses, which were described as fourth-class houses, mostly inhabited by operatives and labourers, had been visited. The average amount of the poor's rate reached 5s. in the pound, and in some cases it exceeded 20s. That was the condition of Ireland in 1849. At present the state of Ireland was a state of prosperity, and the average poor rate in that country was now eleven-pence in the pound. The workhouses were calculated to contain 300,000 inmates. At the present time there are only 50,000 in them, and these were principally women and children. Many of the workhouses had scarcely sufficient men in them to keep them in repair. In one workhouse there were sixty-four inmates, and the salaries of officers amounted to upwards of £400; in another there were fifty-eight paupers, and the establishment charges were £450 a year. These were but samples of many. One-half of the destitution of Ireland was at present relieved by from twenty-five to thirty of the 163 unions of that country, and the Committee which he asked the House to appoint ought to inquire into the means of more fairly distributing the burden over the unions generally. The Committee would also have to consider how the Poor Law could be perfected for the benefit of the poor in Ireland, and whether the workhouses, now nearly empty, might not be made available for the reception of the sick poor, by which means the expense of building new hospitals need not be incurred. It had been proposed to enlarge the unions, but he was opposed to that proposition, because the distance the poor would have to travel to ask for relief would be so great as practically, in many instances, to amount to a denial of relief altogether. Another proposition was to close some of the workhouses, and to transfer the paupers to some central house, but the objections to that plan were that if they were transferred to a workhouse in a town, the paupers would sooner or later become chargeable to that town, and if the workhouse were in a rural district they would be removed too far from their homes. The hon. Member then referred to the second Report by the Irish Poor Law Commissioners upon Medical Charities, and expressed his entire concurrence in the recommendations which those gentlemen had offered. The Commissioners submitted that a system presenting the anomalies which had been detailed to them required alteration in three points. In the first place, they suggested that the county should no longer be continued as the area of taxation for infirmaries and hospitals; secondly, they recommended that the distribution of the buildings to be hereafter maintained for those purposes should be effected in such a way as to extend the benefits of those institutions as equally as possible to the entire locality taxed for their support; and thirdly, that the general arrangements to be made with that object should embrace the whole of Ireland. At present the county infirmaries were kept up by the grand jury cess, but they were to a great extent useless institutions, and in order to economise the workhouse space it had been suggested that the county infirmaries should be abolished, and that the workhouses should be devoted to hospital purposes. His plan was that a portion of the workhouses should be set entirely apart—cut off, as it were—and appropriated for that purpose. The Boards of Guardians should not be the governors of these infirmaries; but, in the same manner as dispensary committees applied to the guardians for the means of support, the governors of the infirmaries should apply to them. The Boards of Guardians were not, however, to have the management of the infirmaries. By these means he thought that the feeling which now existed in reference to these workhouse-hospitals would be removed. He suggested that payments from the sick poor might be permitted for medical treatment in the infirmaries. Great abuses existed in the present dispensary system in consequence of wealthy farmers receiving tickets entitling them to be visited in sickness by the physicians of the dispensaries, and he was of opinion that with the institution of infirmaries having accommodation for the reception of patients this abuse in respect to visiting tickets would cease. With respect to the payment of medical officers, he had always thought it singular that the medical officers attending the unions in England should be paid out of the Consolidated Fund, and in Ireland out of the rates; but he was not disposed to press the point very strongly on the House, for he was anxious that the Irish should aid and assist themselves. There was another branch of the subject which deserved consideration. School districts had been established in unions in Ireland, and so long as the schools received orphans or children with the consent of their parents there could be no objection to the schools, but an alarm had been created by attempts to force children into the schools. He was afraid that this abuse would cause the abandonment of the school-district system; but he did not see why reformatories might not be established in Ireland. He would point out that in many unions in Ireland the elected guardians of towns which contributed three-fourths of the funds were, by the manner in which the electoral divisions were arranged, completely overwhelmed by the rural and ex-officio guardians. He trusted that his right hon. Friend the Secretary for Ireland would inaugurate his first year of office, by taking up this question. He would, therefore, conclude by moving for the appointment of a Select Committee to consider and inquire into tie present state of the workhouse system in Ireland, and the operation of the laws relating to Medical Charities and the relief of the sick poor.

MR. BEAMISH seconded the Motion. Motion made, and Question proposed "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the present state of the Workhouse System in Ireland, and in the Laws relating to Medical Charities and the Relief of the Sick Pour, and to report thereupon to the House,


said, that he thanked the hon. Gentleman for his kind expressions with regard to himself, and assured him that in all the differences to which he alluded he had ever found him fair and candid in his arguments; but, although he admitted the justice of many of the arguments urged by him, and the general accuracy of his statement of facts, the conclusions at which he arrived differed in some respects from those drawn by the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member had alluded to the prosperous condition of Ireland, to the excellent working of the Poor Law, to the diminution of pauperism, and to the simultaneous reduction of rates, and it certainly appeared to him (Mr. Herbert) that these were reasons against the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the operation of a law which was shown to have worked so satisfactorily. He thought, also, that the House ought to pause before it assented to the Motion, because nearly all those hon. Members who were conversant with the subject would be occupied during the remainder of the Session upon Committees which had already been appointed, or upon the Election Committees which would shortly be appointed; and if the Committee was not composed of hon. Members who were acquainted with the question, its recommendations would not have that weight which the hon. Gentleman undoubtedly wished them to possess. Another reason against the appointment of the Committee seemed to him to be that Parliament already had access to a sufficient amount of information to enable it to form a correct opinion on this subject, and he thought, therefore, the Government might fairly be called upon to legislate, at no distant period, in the direction indicated by the hon. Gentleman. He agreed in the observations of the hon. Gentleman with regard to the infirmary system, which he believed had operated with great injustice in many districts of Ireland. There could be no doubt that it was unfair that establishments which only conferred benefits on limited districts in their immediate vicinity, should be supported by the rates of the whole of the counties in which they are situated; and if a fair proposition could be made for the alteration and improvement of that system it would, in his opinion, deserve the most serious consideration of the House. He could not pledge the Government to any action during the present Session, but he thought the House was in possession of documentary evidence amply sufficient to justify legislation. The hon. Gentleman had shown himself so conversant with the question, that he must know that steps had already been taken in respect of the poor law which went to meet his views. He was doubtless aware that fever hospitals had already been established in a great majority of the Irish Poor Law unions, and the last Report of the Poor Law Commission showed that the system of medical relief, to which he had alluded, had considerably increased and was in the course of extension in Ireland. It was quite true that many of the admissions to the workhouse hospitals were not strictly legal, and he therefore deemed it desirable that a change should be made in the law. He granted that the time had come when it would be desirable to make a change in the law for the admission of sick paupers; and agreed in the remark of his hon. Friend as to the space now available, and likely to be available, for that purpose. Indeed he could not conceive that that space could be applied to a more useful purpose than that of establishing the species of hospital which his hon. Friend described. But in saying this, he would add, that unless the proposition for dealing with this important question received the most careful consideration, they would run some risk, inasmuch as it had been shown that the Poor Law system was at present working admirably in Ireland. He (Mr. Herbert) could not agree with his hon. Friend that it would be advisable to mix up the question of reformatories with that of the Poor Law, and, without expressing any abstract opinion as to the propriety of introducing reformatories into Ireland, he hoped that whenever such a proposition was brought forward it would be altogether unconnected with the Poor Law system. His hon. Friend had alluded to the applications which had been made for the amalgamation of unions in Ireland. When it appeared that in some instances there was a very small number of paupers in places where extensive accommodation was provided, persons were apt to imagine that considerable expenditure must be incurred; but he (Mr. Herbert) believed it could be easily shown that such large accommodation did not necessarily involve a great expenditure, and that if the Poor Law Commissioners had acceded to the proposition which had been made to them, it would not have led to the saving which was anticipated by its advocates. On any proposition for the amalgamation of unions they must not forget, however, that it was their duty to regard the interests of the poor as well as those of the ratepayers. He, therefore, could never give his consent to any sweeping amalgamation of unions. At the same time he thought that each case should be considered upon its own merits. He did not say that there were not cases in which amalgamation might be desirable and advantageous; but he could net forget that the Poor Law Commissioners, who had dealt with the subject with great fairness, temper, and discretion, had by their representations induced many parties anxious for amalgamation to remain satisfied with the existing state of things. Without saying, therefore, that he believed it possible in the present Session to legislate in the direction to which his hon. Friend had pointed, he might state that the attention of the Government had been turned to the subject, and that, in his opinion, the time had come when they might hope to have a measure proposed which, to a certain extent, would carry into effect the views which had been so ably and so temperately laid before the House. Under these circumstances he hoped that his hon. Friend would not press his Motion for a Committee.


said, that after the statement of the Secretary for Ireland, and on the understanding that the Government would as soon as possible take the subject into their own hands, it was not his intention to press his Motion to a division.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.