HC Deb 18 March 1858 vol 149 cc339-46

said, he rose to move that it is expedient to establish a Standing Committee, or Unpaid Board or Commission, to consider and report from time to time on practical suggestions likely to he beneficial to the working classes. As he felt the novelty of his suggestion, he would admit that he was bound to give reasonable grounds for the demand he made on the House and the Government. He did not, however, ask for a paid commission, but he proposed that the Board should be selected from Members of that and of the other House of Parliament, and from such persons out of doors taking an interest in the question as the Government might think proper to select. In conducting the business of that Board, care should be taken not to excite unreasonable hopes or unfounded expectations; and it would only consider and report upon such practical suggestions as it might conceive to he adapted for the improvement of the condition of the working classes. One of the grounds on which he brought forward that proposal was that Committees of that House, to whom various matters affecting the industrial classes had been referred, had not been productive of that benefit which had been anticipated from them, or had traced out the causes of failure. What they wanted was a standing Board or Commission, always ready to receive suggestions of the nature to which he referred. Another reason for calling upon the House to consider the question was the great changes that had taken place in the circumstances of the working classes during the present century. The first circumstance to be noted was the enormous increase of population. The population of these islands had doubled within the last fifty years—a fact without precedent in the experience of any other country in Europe; of course this increase had greatly altered the position of the working classes. He admitted there had been a great increase in their average length of life, and in their general comforts; but at the same time there had been a great change in the comparative situations of a large number of these people. At the beginning of the present century the rural population was two to one to the numbers of the civic, but now the proportion was exactly reversed, and was two to one the other way. Every ten years the rural population had increased ten per cent, but for the same periods the increase in the population of the towns was thirty per cent. A necessary result of this increase was to drive the working classes to live in thickly-populated districts; it also led to a complete separation of classes. Formerly the working population dwelt among those above them in social rank, who used to watch over their comfort. But now as much as 70, 80, 90, and even 95 per cent of the population of our largo towns consisted exclusively of the labouring classes. Inhabiting close courts and alleys, or engaged in large manufactories, they were left entirely without the protection of their natural protectors, the richer classes, who availed themselves of the means afforded by modern locomotion to reside at a distance from the great centres of industry and of population. These great social changes had resulted from causes of which the country reaped the benefit—namely, from the rapid development of wealth and enterprise consequent upon forty years of peace. But at the same time it was most desirable that the humbler classes, the instruments in the production of the national wealth, should not be suffered to sink into a more and more depressed condition. A further consequence of the population being so much employed in manufacturing pursuits was that young persons and children were much more exposed to evil than formerly; and he thought the Legislature ought to step in to aid those who were unable personally to urge their own cause; and, as there was now a political lull, he trusted that dispassionate attention would be given to this subject, and that calm consideration would be given to the case which he was Urging, so that a tribunal might be appointed which should give attention to such suggestions as should from time to time be made for the benefit of the labouring classes. The great body of the population was now divided into two classes—the rural and the city; in 1810 there were great complaints of the distress amongst the peasants, especially in the southern comities; in 1817 it still continued, and a Committee was appointed which reported that the abuses in the administration of the Poor Law relief tended greatly to produce it; in 1819 a similar report was made, but nothing was done. In 1824 another Committee was appointed, on the Motion of the noble Lord the Member for the City of London, on the subject of labourers' wages, but nothing was done on their report. In the year 1828 he himself had obtained a Committee of that House, before whom it was proved that in six or eight counties the workmen were depressed by the abuses which took place in the management of the poor rate; that in a Very widely extended district a scale of allowance was made out of the poor rate by which the able-bodied man was kept down and the pauper labourer placed beside him; that payments were made for cottages out of the poor rate, by which a fictitious population was stimulated and a supply of labour maintained much greater than the demand, and that in many instances the state of things was sanctioned by the magistrates. What was the consequence? Matters went on till there was nearly a rural insurrection in the country, till the poor rates were raised to 7s. in the pound over the whole county of Sussex, and till one parish in Buckinghamshire was thrown out of cultivation on account of the disorderliness of the peasantry. It was not till 1834 that any remedy was applied. Then, indeed, under the new Poor Law, the condition of the poor gradually improved; but still old people and children were subjected to great hardships in the workhouses, and it was generally admitted that it would take two generations to remove the evils caused by our neglect. If they had had a council of persons interested in the condition of the poor such as that for which he was now asking, this neglect would never have happened, He had shown the advantages which would accrue to the rural population from the establishment of such councils; but he believed a still greater benefit would arise to the town population—that population which was increasing at the rate of 30 per cent every ten years. Their condition also had been greatly neglected; and it was not till after long perseverance that the Factory Act was passed, through the exertions of a noble Lord now in the other House. He would also refer to the report of the Committee on the labour of children in mines, which showed that the greatest cruelty had been practised on them, and yet it was not till 1830 that it was thought worth while to inquire into their condition. So it was with regard to the health of towns. That was a question which, notwithstanding the great increase in our civic population, was utterly neglected till, in 1844, the attention of Government was attracted to the subject, and a Commission was issued by Sir Robert Peel, which ought to have been issued twenty-five years before, and which had only been neglected because there were no councils or tribunals to take up these questions. That Commission reported that there were 30,000 children living in close narrow courts with no outlet and no facilities for the admission of an adequate supply of fresh air. It also appeared that there were fifty towns, with a population of 3,000,000 forty-seven of which had a deficient water supply, while forty-eight had no proper system of cleansing and draining. Since then the Health of Towns Hill had been passed, and it had accomplished much good; but even now its provisions were not generally adopted, and there were many evils still existing which a council alone, he contended, would be competent to correct. He had no wish that these councils should meddle with questions in dispute between masters and their workmen, nor that they should rouse unreasonable expectations, but still he had confidence that great good might be done without their incurring either of those reproaches. Whenever a new discovery was made in science, a thousand minds were immediately at work to watch its results, and to see how it could be made available for practical purposes; and so he might say that there were thousands of minds at work at the present moment for the benefit of the working classes, but their suggestions fell still-born because they had no central institution to which to refer them. [Marks of impatience.] He was aware this subject was distasteful to some hon. Members; it had not the zest of party politics, but he felt himself bound to persevere from a conscientious conviction of the great importance of the subject. He would not, however, trespass upon their patience at much greater length; but he hoped that Government would take up the question. There was a Board of Agriculture, and commerce had its Board of Trade; and he thought that the condition of the working classes also was entitled to a Board—to an unpaid Board if they would—but with an office and a secretary, whose duty it should be to receive and consider all practical suggestions for the benefit of the labouring population. One of the points which would especially come under the notice of such a board would be the recreations of the working classes and their families. Facilities for recreation were now the more necessary since we had of late years been doing away with the fairs which were wont to be held in towns or their vicinity; and it might be desirable to consider how far it was practicable in the course of time to establish public parks in the immediate neighbourhood of large towns, such as had been opened and dedicated to public use at Manchester and other places. He was glad to say that a Member of the present Government (Mr. Adderley) had recognized the importance of this question, for he had generously presented a park to the people of Birmingham. He was convinced that if the House agreed to a committee or commission being embodied with objects such as he had indicated, the people for whose benefit the concession would be made and whose conduct richly deserved it, would return them their meed of gratitude. The hon. Member concluded with his Motion.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made and Question proposed,— That it is expedient to establish a Standing Committee, or Unpaid Board or Commission, to consider and report from time to time on practical suggestions likely to be beneficial to the Working Classes.


said, no one could have listened to the speech of his hon. Friend but he must have respected the motives which had prompted him in bringing this question under the consideration of the House. It was the more creditable to his hon. Friend inasmuch as it was now hard upon thirty years since he began to direct his attention and to apply the energies of his benevolent mind to the practical amelioration of the condition of the working classes, and he was still treading in the same path. His hon. Friend had told the House that, though he had taken part in moving many Committees with this end in view, he had gained very little for the objects of his benevolence. The greater was his merit. He had hoped, however, that on this occasion his hon. Friend would have given the House some sketch of the plan he wished them to adopt; but he had been at a loss to see what was the practical measure at which his hon. Friend aimed. His hon. Friend would perhaps permit him to put this matter at once to the test. Let him (Mr. Estcourt) suppose this Motion acceded to, that such a Commission were issued, and that his hon. Friend were at the head of it, as he was entitled to be. The question that he (Mr. Estcourt) had to ask him was—what was the first step which, as the head of that Commission, he would take? He was quite at a loss to conceive what it could be. Perhaps his hon. Friend's object was to offer facilities to the labouring classes for laying out their money. He (Mr. Estcourt) was persuaded, if this Commission issued, that the real and practical business that it must take in hand would be to aid that class of the population in improving their incomes. Suppose an industrious mechanic had £20 in a savings-bank, and that he wished to invest it in a way which would bring him six per cent, instead of three,—he came to this Royal Commission, and applied to his (Mr. Estcourt's) hon. Friend for his advice how to do that. With this view the Commission would, he supposed, provide two tables—one setting forth the schemes which they recommended, and the other those which it wished to deter working men from embarking in. The first result of this would be that all who were connected with the schemes denounced would band together against the Commission, and benevolent as were his hon. Friend's intentions, perhaps he would not be able to reach his own office without the assistance of a body of police, He would suppose, however, that his hon. Friend recommended a certain scheme of investment, and that the £20 was invested in accordance with his advice. It might happen that the scheme so recommended might be mismanaged, and in that event what was the position of the mechanic whom he had sought to benefit? Then, he supposed, his hon. Friend would be anxious to give greater facilities for improving the condition of the working classes. Suppose, now, that he were to come down to this House and propose that the interest of money in the savings banks were to be raised from 3 to 6 per cent— [Mr. SLANEY: I expressly stated that I would confine myself to what was practical.] Well, it would come to this, that either the plans of his hon. Friend would lead to the wildest speculations, or that the whole thing would end in smoke. But he believed it would be worse than impracticable—it would have a mischievous tendency, in that it offered a kind of substitute for the caution and intelligence which every man was bound to exercise in the management of his own affairs. If this Commission came to anything the result would be in very many cases that men would come to lean upon it rather than upon their own exertions; and if nothing came of it, he could not help thinking that it would throw some discredit upon Parliament that they had given their sanction to a measure which turned out to he impracticable and visionary. His hon. Friend was no doubt actuated by the best motives in making this Motion; but if he (Mr. Estcourt) understood his hon. Friend rightly there was no need for his making this application to Parliament. Why might not his hon. Friend, as a private man, act as an unpaid Commissioner, and so seek to give practical effect to his views? No harm would come from that, and perhaps much practical good might be the result. He would still he in a position to offer advice to the working classes, and, if it were sound, it would be as acceptable coming from a private man as from any official if clothed with the authority of Parliament. In making this Motion, however, his hon. Friend had discharged his conscience, and he had done it in a manner calculated to elicit the respect of every hon. Member of that House, and the approbation of every man who had a heart within him. He hoped his hon. Friend would be content with that and withdraw his Motion. If, however, he carried it to a division he (Mr. Estcourt) should be obliged to vote against him.


said, after the kind manner in which his right hon. Friend had spoken of his exertions he felt he should not he deserving of his confidence if he did not take the advice which his right hon. Friend had given him. But his right hon. Friend had entirely misapprehended the functions of the tribunal contemplated by the Motion. He (Mr. Slaney) never thought of giving advice to poor men who might come there as to the mode of in- vesting their savings, or of distracting their attention from their own industry, or lessening their own forethought. What he intended was that such a Commission or tribunal should consider carefully practical suggestions for the improvement of the condition of the labouring classes, and digest them, or rejecting those which were useless, and reporting upon those which they thought ought to be carried out.

Motion by leave, withdrawn,