HC Deb 24 July 1860 vol 160 cc88-102

Order for Committee read.

House in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clause 1 (The Poor Law Board to be continued for Five Years).


moved that the powers of the Board be continued for one year only instead of five. In doing so, he bore his testimony to the benefits which the Board had conferred on the country, but he did not consider it right that the Board should possess powers which properly should only belong to that House. The power of issuing regulations and orders which had the force of law, no matter how respectable the gentleman who exercised it, was to his mind most objectionable, and he protested against the delegation of such powers to any body whatever. A short time since the Board was renewed for two years, and he thought that a renewal for one year was all that could now be fairly asked. The Poor Law Board at present exercised a very vexatious interference with local boards throughout the country, the latter being unable to employ or dismiss a servant, to grant fees or expenses, or do many other things of that kind without the sanction of the central Board, and in consequence gentlemen with sensitive feelings shrunk from accepting seats at them. At a time when so much was done to centralize, it would be well to do something to foster and sustain local authority. He only asked for a delay of one year in order that time might be given for the introduction of a wise and comprehensive measure on the subject of Poor Law administration in general. He did not wish to see the Poor Law Board abolished, but only its powers properly regulated. There were various matters which might be very well left at the discretion of the local boards in respect of out-door relief. There was also a great grievance, which he hoped to see redressed in a future measure, namely, the removal of the unfortunate Irish poor. They came over and rendered most valuable services here, and, nevertheless, after having given the best proof of having done their duty faithfully, they were often treated in the most cruel and unfeeling manner. He would also wish to see power given to the Boards of Guardians to borrow money on the security of the rates for one or two years. He submitted that the duty of the Poor Law Board should be one of supervision, and not of coercion, and that it should strengthen rather than weaken the hands of the local boards. For these reasons he should move that the word "one" should be substituted for "five" in the first clause.


said, the object of the Poor Law Act was to regulate the local management of the relief of the poor, to prevent misappropriation of funds, and, as far as possible, to produce uniformity. The feelings of Boards of Guardians to which the hon. Gentleman referred existed, he believed, only in certain localities, and he did not think there was any general desire to do away with the central management of the Poor Law Board. The object of the hon. Gentleman was, he said, to secure for this question at some future period the full consideration of Parliament, with a view to providing remedies for the evils complained of. He had no doubt that the House would be ready to inquire into the question, and give it its full consideration; but it was not necessary to restrict the Bill to one year only in order to procure for the subject the serious consideration of Parliament. The existence of the Board did not prevent the law from being altered. The effect of continuing the Bill for one year only would be to aggravate any disagreements that might have arisen between the Poor Law Board and local Boards; and it would be better to put an end to the Poor Law Board at once than to adopt such a proposition. The old system which prevailed before 1834 was, as they all knew, full of practical abuses, and the system which had been established in lieu of it had become absolutely necessary not only as a protection to the poor, but to the ratepayers. The hon. Gentleman complained of the regulations which directed the outlay of the Boards of Guardians; but it was absolutely necessary to lay down rules for the management of the money of the ratepayers. If, for example, a Board of Guardians were allowed to give 5s. in the way of charity, just as a private gentleman might do, how would it be possible to provide a check upon such expenditure? If they attempted to administer the funds for the relief of the poor in the same way as a private gentleman might exercise Christian charity, he was afraid that they would fall back to the miserable state of things that existed prior to 1834. There were many points to which he should wish to see the attention of the House directed—such as the question of the dismissal of officers, the arrangements of the poor-houses, the separation of the good and the bad, the treatment of persons belonging to different religious denominations, &c. These and other matters ought to be subjected to special investigation; and what he would recommend was—not that they should pass a clause that would paralyze the officials— that at the commencement of next Ses ion a Committee of the House should be appointed to make the necessary inquiries regarding them. He felt so strongly on the subject that, if the Government or some private Member of the House did not move upon the question, he would himself next Session propose the appointment of a Committee. He was in favour of a permanent Central "Board for the management of the affairs of the poor, but he had no doubt that improvements were called for, and he would be prepared to adopt such as were shown on inquiry to be necessary.


said, he was not inclined to support the Amendment, but he thought there were many points in the administration of the Poor Law which required amendment. "With regard to medical relief especially did this observation apply. The grievances of the medical officers had been acknowledged by several successive Commissioners, but nothing had been done to improve the condition of those officers, except that their appointments were made permanent. He thought that the time had come when an inquiry should be made into the working of the Board, and he hoped the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, that a Select Committee should be appointed next year, would be adopted.


thought that to pass the Bill only for one year would unsettle matters so much as to be productive of evil, and would prevent any ultimate good being done. On the other hand, he was not prepared to assent to the proposition for continuing the Board for five years. Five years was too long, especially if it was to be coupled with the intention of considering the question with a view to its ultimate settlement. If the Bill were passed for five years all inquiry would be shelved, and he would therefore suggest that the intermediate period of three years should be selected, on the understanding that a full inquiry was to take place.


would be disposed to recommend his hon. Friend (Mr. Bazley) to withdraw his Amendment were it not that the professions of hon. Gentlemen in the House were so very different from their conduct out of it. Therefore, unless they received a distinct pledge from the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Villiers) that a Select Committee of Inquiry should be appointed next Session, he should support his hon. Friend, and would recommend him to go to a division. There was great dissatisfaction with the working of the Poor Law Board throughout the country.


said, it was worthy of observation that no attack had been made on the central authority of the Poor Law Board. The right hon. Member for North Wilts (Mr. S. Estcourt) pointed out certain modifications that he thought should be taken into consideration, and he urged the appointment of a Committee; but he brought no accusation against the central authority. Some Members talked as if the House were ignorant of the working of the Poor Law Board. But in 1854 the Commissioners of the Treasury made inquiry, and gave in a most elaborate Report on the constitution, the organization, and working of the Poor Law Board; and if they wanted other information they would find it in a huge blue-book, which gave the fullest details of the working of the Poor Law since 1834. The noble Lord the Member for Marylebone talked of the Poor Law Board being disapproved by the country; but how stood the fact? Out of 644 unions only 100 had petitioned against the Poor Law Board, and 40 of these only prayed for modifications such as those referred to by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Wilts. He believed that many of the petitions had been got up in London entirely on a sectarian ground, having reference to the admission of Roman Catholic Chaplains to the workhouses. The effect of carrying the Amendment of the hon. Member for Manchester would be to strike a blow at the central authority. The Boards of Guardians were represented as opposed to all supervision; but it was, nevertheless, an undoubted fact that the Act of 1834, which introduced the system of supervision by a central authority, had saved the property of this country, and redounded to the credit of the Administration that carried it. Yet it was wished rashly to put down that central authority. He hoped his right hon. Friend the President of the Poor Law Board would not consent to limit the Bill to three years, as the effect would be to cut the throat of his own Board, the administration of which, under all Governments, had been excellent. Comparing the expenditure for the relief of the poor in the twenty years preceding the Act of 1834 with that for the twenty years subsequent a saving of £33,000,000 had been effected to the property of the country, and the Saving in law expenses alone had been upwards of £150,000 a year.


said, the arguments of the hon. Member for Liskeard, ought to lead him to propose that the Bill should be permanent; for, if the working of the Poor Law system was so perfect, why limit the Bill to five years r The hon. Member said the petitions got up in London against the Board were based chiefly on sectarian grounds; but he (Mr. Duncombe) had presented petitions from the large parishes of Islington, Clerkenwell, and St. Luke's, none of which were grounded on sectarian principles, but were all in favour of the continuance of the Bill for one year only. They wished this because they were in favour of inquiry into the manner in which the Poor Law had worked, and they knew that if the Bill was continued for live years no inquiry would take place. There had been no inquiry into the general working of the Poor Law since 1834. All the inquiries that had taken place referred only incidentally to the system, being directed to mere questions of detail. He, therefore, thought the time had arrived when a general inquiry should take place.


thought the effect of continuing the Bill only for one year would be greatly to impair the influence of the Poor Law Board. The supervision of the Central Board had been beneficial to the ratepayers as well as to the poor; and if it were destroyed, what would take its place? If they were not to have the present Poor Law Board, were they to go back to the state of things that existed prior to 1834? The hon. Member for Manchester was unfortunate in the time he had selected for his Motion. A Committee of that House had been appointed to inquire into the law affecting the irremovable poor; and no doubt the Central Board would have to carry out any changes which that Committee might recommend. But his Amendment would interfere with such a course; for if it were carried, the Poor Law Board would stand virtually condemned. He supported the limitation of the clause as it stood; but he trusted they should have from the President of the Poor Law Board a pledge that next Session a Select Committee should be appointed to inquire into the subject.


said, he did not sec how any hon. Gentleman who wished for inquiry, could oppose the Amendment. It seemed to him totally inconsistent, while a system was on trial, to propose a Five Tears' Continuance Bill. The question really at issue was, whether they were to have an inquiry or not. Those who thought there should be no inquiry, because they were convinced the system now worked well, ought to propose to make the Bill perpetual; and those who thought the system worked ill, ought to propose its abolition. To give a long term of continuance to the Bill, would be practically to say that there was to be no inquiry. For himself, he thought inquiry was necessary: and therefore he was in favour of a shorter period than that proposed by the Government.


said, he could not support the proposition of the hon. Member for Manchester; and if the Government would grant an inquiry, he would give his vote for their proposition. The time had come when they should have a full, and not a partial inquiry only, into the operation of the Poor Law, in order to the correction of what might be found amiss. He believed that if local authority was substituted for the central power, the former would for a time be found the cheaper of the two; but in the course of five or six years the old abuses would creep in, and in time the state of things would become as bad as they were before 1834. He held, therefore, that they never could do away with the Central Board.


said, that the object of the Amendment that had been proposed was, without doubt, to discredit and weaken the authority of the Central Board, though it had been introduced, as he was aware, with a profession of goodwill to that authority. He had not addressed the Committee before, from desiring to learn the precise grounds on which this attack on the Poor Law Board was made. The renewal of the Act for the continuance of the Board had been hitherto nearly a matter of form, and nothing had been said yet to justify the departure from that course upon this occasion. Nothing had been alleged to prove any mal-administration by the Board, and no abuses had been proved to have arisen from its existence in the country; and even the Member for Manchester himself, in making his attack, said he was not hostile to the principle of a Central Board. It was idle, moreover, to say that the continuance of the Board offered any obstacle to inquiry concerning the law, or, indeed, the Board itself. There had been constant inquiries into the operation of the law generally, and of every branch of it; there had hardly been any two years without inquiry of some kind in connection with it—inquiries, moreover, that had never been opposed by the Board or the Government. There was an inquiry in 1837, three years after the system had come into operation; again in 1844, 1845 and 1846, twice in 1854; in 1858 and 1859; and even the Board had been reconstituted in consequence of one of those inquiries. In the absence of any practical objection to the Board the House must see that the real issue placed before them was the policy of any central supervision; looking to its origin and the language of some of the petitions, that was really, as he believed, what this movement was intended really to raise. The question was not started, as formerly, by those who represented the poor, or by those whose properties were taxed for their relief; but it was considered in the words of the Member for Manchester, as an obnoxious authority by some of these local administrators of the law who were impatient of the control of the Central Board, and who wanted to return to the old system of local and uncontrolled management, the effects of which in former times, however, were recorded in many volumes in that House, and which, as many Members knew, terminated in a kind of servile insurrection, and which forced upon the Government the great reform that was effected in 1834. The House, then, he was sure would require to be satisfied that if the authority of the Board was to be weakened as it was proposed, that many of the same evils would not recur which existed before. The old argument in favour of local self-government was adduced on these occasions against the Central Board. There was no one more friendly to that system than he was, or would promote it more; but it was easy to draw the line between things that were properly the subject of local government and those that belonged to the State, and he ventured to say that the morals, well-being, and independence of the poor were properly matters of national concern, and that the State had properly interposed its authority to avert the misery, vice, and mischief that followed from what was called the management by every parish of its own poor, which consisted in every parish resorting to every scheme it could devise to keep down the rates, with little regard for either the character or the welfare of the poor; and, though it was popular to hold this language still against the interference of the Board, he trusted the State would never again abandon its duties and rights with regard to the poor; and for this reason be must contend against their being again placed exclusively in the hands of uncertain and irresponsible persons. He proposed the continuance of the national and central authority for a period of five years, because that was the time for which it was at first established, and that this was the period for which it was continued on the last occasion. But one instance had occurred of its being moved for a shorter period—namely, for two years, and that had no reference to the feeling against the Board, but to the peculiar state of the Government then in power; but no inquiry was instituted during those two years, and his lamented predecessor, Mr. Baines, at the expiration of that time moved it again for five years, without a breath of opposition being offered to it. He was now asked if he would resist the appointment of any Committee of Inquiry if the proposed renewal should be agreed to. He had no hesitation in saying that he should oppose no inquiry of the kind; he should, on the contrary, readily support any inquiry into the working of the Board, and he should do so, in perfect confidence that the more the subject was investigated the more it would appear that the central authority was the soul of the whole system, and that its power of control, with the sanction of the whole country, would be confirmed. At the same time he was of opinion that the appointment of such a Committee would throw discredit on the Board, if they should now wantonly and unreasonably refuse the renewal of the Act for the usual period. He believed that there never was less feeling against the Board since it was established. The agitation now was not spontaneous. It had been stimulated in many parts of the country by a certain malcontent union in London, and until after the 2nd of June there was hardly a petition against the Board, and then the one that was sent from London was merely adopted as a matter of form, and at this moment there were hardly 70 unions out of 660 that had petitioned. Though all had received copies of the petition from London, many had openly repudiated that petition, though an urgent request was made to all to adopt it, and in some places where it had been adopted, the Chairman of the Board had resigned in consequence. He believed, as he said before, that the Board never acted so harmoniously with the great majority of the unions as it did at present; and there never was a time when the press, which usually reflected the feeling of the country, was so entirely silent in urging anything against it, or was so favourably disposed to it. He, therefore, with perfect confidence, recommended the continuance of the Bill now, and should cheerfully consent to any inquiry into any practical grievance which could be alleged against it, or required to be reformed next Session.


said, he had not heard a single attack made on the central Board. The whole extent of the argument in reference to the Board was that in the Administration of Poor Law affairs certain abuses had arisen which required correction. This debate presented an extraordinary phenomenon. The hon. Member for Liskeard (Mr. Bernal Osborne) said the Board was a model of excellence; but it nevertheless had the misfortune to be accused of maladministration by almost every Member who had spoken but himself. Every county Member who had spoken had complained of maladministration, and of the necessity of some alteration taking place in reference to the discharge of officers and the like. The Board was in the habit of issuing edicts, which had the force of Acts of Parliament, and, in some instances, they even went the length of removing the chairman appointed by the local Board. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board, he begged to observe, had given no pledge that the Government would of themselves institute an inquiry next Session.


said, the Committee had been reminded of the state of things that existed prior to 1884, when in many parts of the country there had been almost a servile insurrection, and when the effect of the system in operation was, that the poor were degraded, corrupted, and tyrannized over. This was no exaggerated picture of the then state of things, and the consequence was that an almost universal agreement existed in favour of some legislative remedy. In the change which then took place, Parliament very wisely abstained from attempting to lay down detailed rules for the administration of the relief of the poor either in or out of the workhouse. Their object was to give such an elastic power as would gradually produce a change of system, and it merely created a central authority, subject to the control of that House, to make regulations for the guidance of Boards of Guardians, a new representative local body also created by the Act. The consequence was that a struggle occurred wherever the old system was interfered with, vested inter- ests were assailed, and a great revulsion necessarily took place against the change of system, especially in regard to the matter of outdoor relief. By inquiries conducted by a Committee of that House, and also by the prudent attention which the Poor Law Commissioners paid to the state of public opinion, the new system came to be better understood, and was at length fully introduced. Since that time a regular Administration of relief by the Boards of Guardians had been established, and the relief of the able-bodied had been done away with, though there were still large exceptions. Whenever there was sickness in a family, or other exceptional circumstances, the Boards of Guardians had power to give out-door relief, but otherwise no able-bodied man was relieved out of the workhouse. This change had been productive of the greatest advantage to the working classes. The question, however, had now assumed a different aspect. The resistance to the Poor Law Board now did not come from the poor or from those who called themselves the friends of the poor, and were the advocates of what they considered to be a humane system of relief. It was the resistance of local officers, medical officers and others, and Boards of Guardians, who objected to the regulations of the central Board with respect to their administrative proceedings. This was, therefore, an entirely new question. If the Boards of Guardians had power to make regulations in these matters, there would be a different set of rules in every Union, and the machinery of the Poor Law would be thrown into confusion. There was also a question raised respecting medical relief. What the medical authorities desired was that there should be a system of giving medical relief out of the poor rates to persons who were not paupers. What they, in fact wished to do was to set up a kind of medical Established Church, to have a medical endowment diffused over the whole country, of which any person might take advantage. He was ready to admit that the question of power was not always easily settled, and, therefore, it was a fit subject for inquiry before such a Committee as the right hon. Gentleman had recommended. He did not see that any ground had been laid for shortening the continuance of the Bill, as there was no connection between the inquiries of a Committee and the time for which the Bill might be passed No Gentleman had said that it was desirable altogether to abolish the central authority, and if it was to be continued, it was convenient that the term of its continuance should be stated in the Bill to be for a reasonable time.


said, he intended to support the suggestion of the hon. Member for Kent (Mr. Deedes). Seeing that an inquiry was to take place, he thought that a very thorough investigation might be completed in that time.


said, he did not understand that any one impugned the administration of the Poor Law Board, though some changes were considered necessary. A great improvement had, no doubt, taken place in the condition of the labouring classes; but that was more owing to free trade and other measures than to the operation of the Poor Law. Such, in his opinion, was the experience of boards of guardians throughout the country, that little control over them was now necessary, and be gave it as his opinion that the Staff of the Poor-Law Board was unnecessarily large. There was certainly no necessity for two secretaries. He was in favour of the Bill being continued for three years.


assuming that there would be no objection to an inquiry in a future Session, said he would move as an Amendment upon the clause, that "three" years should be substituted for "five" years.


asked his hon. Friend the Member for Manchester whether he would think it necessary to divide. His right hon. Friend the President of the Poor-Law Board rather misstated the object of his hon. Friend's Amendment. He (Mr. Bright) did not think that his hon. Friend had any intention by a side blow to inflict a stab upon the central authority. He did not think that such a course was in accordance with the opinion of his hon. Friend, or with the opinions of those whose views he intended to represent. The only point he (Mr. Bright) had heard discussed was whether there were not some things in which the central authority might be made to work in a more satisfactory manner. It was desirable that it should be made to work in a manner that would enable them to obtain the service of independent men in the unions to carry out the business of a public Department, whose operations affected so minutely the feelings and comforts of so large a number of individuals in the country.


said, he could not accede to either of the Amendments. He thought that if they were to have a central authority—and all seemed to agree upon that—nothing could be worse than for Parliament to strike a blow at the respect which was due to it; and if, when the Bill had been proposed for a period of five years, the House were to reduce that period to one or three years, it would be considered by the country at large as a virtual condemnation of that central authority. It was wholly unnecessary, in order to investigate the subject before a Committee, that the duration of the Bill should be restricted to three years. He would assume, for argument's sake, that the result of the Committee's inquiry would be to show that alterations should be made as to the powers of the local Boards. Would Parliament be the less able to carry such alterations into effect because by the Bill before the House the Poor Law Board was continued for five years, and not for three? They would be just as able to deal with the question in the one case as in the other. If they wanted to abolish the Board, then he saw good reason for passing the Bill only for one year; but nobody seemed to think of the abolition of the Board. All that was contemplated was the introduction of certain things that would provide against collisions between the local authorities and the central authority. The Government were prepared to propose a Committee to inquire into these matters themselves, and will not leave it to be done by a private Member. This should be done at the earliest period of the next Session, so that ample time would be given for inquiry, and, if strong grounds were shown for making alterations relative to the power of the Board, there would be as great facilities for making those changes with a Bill continued for five years as with one restricted to three years, while they would escape the evil of doing anything to diminish the respect due to the Board. The hon. Member for Westminster (Sir John Shelley) said the diminution of pauperism was owing to free trade and other measures, and not to the operation of the Poor Law. No doubt free trade had done much to improve the condition of the labouring classes, but a great deal was also owing to the manner in which the relief of the poor was now administered. It was unnecessary for him to remind the Committee of the enormous abuses that formerly prevailed in the management of the poor, and of the vast improvement that had now taken place. He should deprecate any measure that would strike a blow at the Central Board, by which the improved system was guided, and he hoped, therefore, that the period of five years would be adhered to.


said, the Government ought to pledge themselves to bring in a Bill to carry out any recommendations that the Committee to be appointed might make.


said, he would withdraw his Amendment in favour of the Proposition made by the hon. Member for Kent.


said, the argument of the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) only confirmed him the more in the opinion he had formed, that the Bill should be for three years. Their object in appointing a Committee was that something might be done; and, if something was to be done, was it not advisable that it should be done as soon as possible after the inquiry? If the Bill were for five years that object would not be gained. He now moved that the Bill should be for three years instead of five, and that the words "and to the end of the then next Session of Parliament" be omitted.

Amendment proposed, in page 2, lines 1 and 2, to leave out the words "five, and thenceforth until the end of the next Session of Parliament," in order to insert the word "three."


had not said that if the Committee next year recommended changes in the law, those changes were to be postponed till the end of five years. On the contrary his argument was, that it was as possible to make the changes immediately after the Report of the Committee was made with the Bill continued for five years as for three. He meant to say that the recommendations of the Committee could be immediately carried out.


would vote for the Amendment of the hon. Member for Kent, because, if the Bill were fixed for three years, the House would feel itself compelled to proceed to legislate as soon as the Inquiry took place.

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

The Committee divided:—Ayes 92; Noes 147: Majority 55.


moved the following clause:— That on the next avoidance of the office of the one secretary rendered capable of sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament by the 9th Clause of the above recited Act, this office shall be abolished, and the said Commissioners shall only appoint one instead of two secretaries, as provided by the said Act.


said, the business of the office was so extensive as to fully employ two secretaries. The greatest objection to the Board was that guardians could not get answers.


said, the business had greatly increased of late, and questions were constantly arising which called for immediate answers, and demanded the close attention of the secretaries. The nature of the business required that one of the secretaries should be entitled to a seat in the House, as in the case of other public departments.

Motion negatived.

House resumed.

Bill reported; as amended, to be considered To-morrow.

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