HC Deb 26 June 1860 vol 159 cc1022-30

said, he rose to submit a Motion to the House relative to the distress now prevailing in Erris and other parts of Ireland. When that subject was brought before the House in the middle of April, the right hon. Chief Secretary fully recognized its importance, and on a subsequent occasion the right hon. Gentleman described the distress of this district as extreme. Since then, however, the evil had increased, and yet, as far as he knew, nothing had been done by the Government to remedy it. He was informed that on the 3rd of May there were in the district of Erris 300 families totally destitute, and receiving aid from a private relief committee. On the 9th of June the number had risen to 400; on the 17th of the same month it was 640; and a letter he had received that day from the Archdeacon of Killala stated that the number of destitute families had now reached 900. The right hon. Gentleman a few weeks ago dwelt upon the Poor Law system as the only and proper remedy for this state of things. But the Poor Law in Ireland differed from that of England in one important particular—that whereas in England out-door relief was given in cases of sudden and urgent necessity, or where one or more members of a family were sick, in Ireland, on the other hand, such relief was not given to any able-bodied person as long as the workhouses were not full. If the Irish Poor Law system were identical with that of England, these 900 destitute families would be entitled to out-door relief, not only in virtue of the sudden and extreme urgency of their distress, but because illness had unfortunately broken out extensively among them as the consequence of famine. The small quantities of meal which had been supplied to them by the private relief committee had only sufficed to keep them alive. Dysentery and fever now raged among them to a fearful extent, and he was informed that distress also prevailed among the small farmers and occupiers of land who possessed a few cattle, but who, owing to the destruction of the hay crop and the total want of fodder, had lost their means of subsistence. The parish priest as well as the Protestant rector confirmed these statements. He had suggested some time ago that the destitute poor should be employed upon public works, but the suggestion had been met by the Secretary for Ireland with sneers. Now, however, it was too late. The people had lost their strength and could not labour. He therefore asked that the English system, so far as cases of urgent necessity were concerned, might be adopted in that district, and that thus something might be done to preserve the people, and to prevent the emigration which would otherwise follow their recovery from the fever and dysentery from which they were now suffering. The hon. Member moved that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty might be graciously pleased to direct that steps might be taken to relieve the great distress now prevailing in Erris and other parts of Ireland.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that the question really was whether the Government should maintain the letter of the Irish system or depart from it, and save the people from starvation. The emptiness of the workhouses was no proof of the absence of distress, because the people in all parts of Ireland had the greatest objection to go into the poorhouse. There was no question that great destitution existed in Erris, while instant relief was required, and he knew of no way by which the distress could be dealt with except by the giving out-door relief.


said, that he had always admitted the prevalence of distress in Erris, and had expressed in proper terms, he hoped, his sincere feelings of regret that it existed, and his sympathy with the sufferers, at the same time he had endeavoured to put the House in possession of the real facts of the case. He now had all the papers connected with this matter with him, and if the hon. Gentleman thought that either the Government, the Poor Law Commissioners, or the guardians had been remiss in the discharge of their duties, and that it was desirable that these papers should be laid upon the table, he should be quite ready to produce them, and to give every possible information. What had occurred in Erris was, that a liberal subscription had been raised and administered by a relief committee, the consequence of which was, that the Poor Law had been to a considerable degree in abeyance or reserve. In a workhouse in the district which was capable of containing 600 persons there had never during the prevalence of this distress been more than 125 inmates. The hon. Member said he (Mr. Cardwell) had sneered at the idea of out-door relief on public works; but he (Mr. Cardwell) was sure he never did sneer at anything connected with this distress, though he expressed his disapproval of adopting certain means to meet that distress which might be attended with more mischief than benefit. He had a letter from the Commissioners, dated the 8th of May, and he firmly believed that a liberal use by the guardians of the power of admission to the poor-house, and of affording out-door relief, and a proper use of the provisional powers vested in them, were sufficient to meet the present emergency. That showed that the Commissioners were not discouraging the use by the guardians of the powers which they possessed under the law to mitigate the distress; and he had that day received a letter from the Poor Law Inspector stating that there were only 120 persons in the workhouse, that the proportion of sick persons was not great, and that there was no fever or infectious disease in the house; and adding, that he had visited the most distressed part of the district, and had found that relief was accessible to all who needed it. The hon. Gentleman was wrong in supposing that the Government had at all changed their policy, or that they were giving funds to public works which were before withheld. The real state of the case was this:—There was a sum standing to the credit of the county of Mayo in the Irish Reproductive Fund, and, early in the spring, the hon. Member for the county applied to have it y employed in the improvement of two important bays within the district of Erris. The sum, which amounted to £1,150, was applied by the Treasury to that purpose in the regular course. The only step which he had taken upon the part of the Government which could be considered to be at all of an unusual character was to induce the Treasury to remit a sum of £6,000 due from certain distressed districts, especially Gweedore, on account of the constabulary, as it did appear to him an extreme hardship to levy that sum under the cricumstances. He should be extremely happy to lay on the table the whole of the correspondence if any hon. Gentleman connected with Ireland wished to see it, and he was sure they would be convinced that there had been no lukewarmness or indifference on the part of those who administered the Poor Law. But, if the hon. Gentleman meant to prejudge the question whether the provisions of the Irish Poor Law were or were not what they ought to be, he must object to the Motion. There was a Bill upon the subject now waiting for discussion. He had no objection to any Gentleman stating any arguments upon that measure, although they might not be those of the Government, but he certainly thought it inexpedient to bring them in incidentally, and to prejudge the general law upon the peculiar circumstances of this case. His answer to the hon. Gentleman was, that he would find when he looked to the evidence that every step which ought to have been taken had been taken by the Poor Law Commissioners and by the Government. With regard to how the law ought to stand as to indoor and outdoor relief, the time to raise that discussion would be when they were considering the general subject of the relief of the poor. But there was nothing in the circumstances of the district of Erris, as known to him, which led him to believe that a firm, humane, and fair administration of the Poor Law as it existed would not enable any person in distress to receive relief both with regard to sustenance and medical attendance.


said, the people who were in distress in Erris were small farmers, who, in consequence of the very severe season, had not their cattle in a condition to turn them into money. Although they had property it did not follow that they were not in a most distressed state, and that they would not bear any amount of privation rather than go into the workhouse. He hoped the Government would take some further steps to endeavour to mitigate the sufferings of those unfortunate persons.

Notice taken that Forty Members were not present; House counted, and Forty Members being present.


said, that while they were reforming the Poor Law, one portion of the people of Erris were dying of starvation and the other portion were living on the capital which they ought to use to make the land productive. The Treasury had forgiven the police-rate, but that was making a present of £6,000 to the landowners instead of assisting the people. The Poor Law was futile. The people of Ireland would rather die than go into a workhouse, and those who went in, as a general rule, were never useful subjects afterwards. There could be no doubt that great destitution prevailed in this part of Ireland, and the Government were bound to act as a paternal as well as a ruling power. The Poor Law as administered in Ireland was not of the slightest use, and the money which was to be given to the landlords ought rather to be spent in feeding and employing the starving people.


said, he shared the opinion that the Poor Law of Ireland, by withholding all out-door relief, was necessarily inadequate to the requirements of an emergency like that which had been brought under their notice. The poor Irishman, struggling to gain a livelihood from the merest patch of land, would on no account enter the workhouse in the hour of distress. Some other mode of relief must be provided, and he hoped the Government would not remain inactive. It was an Imperial and not merely an Irish question if the apathy of the Government drove these people to emigrate, while a little assistance properly applied would necessarily make them comfortable, and enable them to carry out their obligations to society in their own country.


said, he believed that this was a case of real and grave distress, which was hourly growing worse. The Government were bound to relieve these wretched people by all the feelings of humanity, if not by the principles of poli- tical economy. On a former occasion the Government consented to interfere only after repeated demands, and the result was that their remedy came too late. When employment was provided for the people they were in too reduced a state to avail themselves of it, The Government were now called upon to act promptly and vigorously. There must be some alteration in the Poor Law of Ireland to meet such cases as this, which were constantly arising. We could not command propitious weather, or ward off the murrain from the cattle and the blight from the crops; and when these calamities occurred the most deadly privations fell on certain classes. As one of these who administered the law in the city in which he lived, he could testify to the aversion which the poor entertained to entering the workhouse. It must be remembered, too, that the distress in this instance had fallen on the farming classes, who could not go into the workhouse, as those who held a certain quantity of land were not entitled to admission. The law must be amended, but in the meanwhile what were the people to do? There were hundreds of families perishing from starvation; how many more must be sacrificed before the sympathies of the Government were aroused? The law was inoperative as long as its administration was confided to cold-blooded guardians, and nothing but a suspension of the law would meet the requirements of this case. He called on the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for Ireland to break through the trammels of official routine, and to give a ready and generous response to the appeal of these 900 starving families for relief.


said, that ever since the Poor Law had been introduced into Ireland he had endeavoured to promote it, but he did not think it was either just or fair to expect that the existing system of Poor Law could meet the extraordinary exigencies of a case of distress so awful as that which had been described. It was alleged that the poor-houses were not full; but if they were filled, what a miserable state of things would ensue. An extraordinary combination of incidents beyond the power of man had supervened—distress in the fisheries, drought, and disease of cattle, and consequent high prices of provisions, together with general sickness. No ordinary Poor Law could meet such a state of things. Who, he would ask, were the class that suffered? Were they not the farmers and ratepayers themselves? The small farmers could not go into the poorhouse until they had got rid of all their property. If they sold all their stock and entered the poorhouse with their families, the farm paid no rates, and thus the circle of misery was widened, because the difficulty of raising the rates was increased. It was said there was a reluctance to go into the poorhouse; but those who did not, probably held aloof in expectation of being able to do better, and once there it was scarcely possibly for them to get out again, excepting as paupers. If they once went in how were they to establish themselves again as ratepayers, and how were the rates to be paid? Would it not be wise on the part of the House to meet this local evil and emergency as in 1846 they met a general one, by resorting to extraordinary means? If not, they destroyed the productive resources of the country as well as its future prosperity. The proposers of the Motion did not ask for a grant of money, but for an address to the Crown that steps might be taken to relieve the existing distress. In a former instance the House had taken extreme steps, and a rate in aid was made. It was impossible to read the accounts from those districts, and not see that however great the amount of charity and exertion, it was not adequate to meet the emergency; and if steps were not taken there might be a loss of life that might be bitterly deplored. He hoped the Motion would be conceded.


said, he must admit that the Poor Law authorities were not responsible in the matter, the question of outdoor relief being disposed of by the fact that the tenantry themselves in the district were paupers. The distress had arisen in consequence of the indisposition of the small farmers to sell their stocks owing to the low prices, and then came the bad weather and the drought, and the cattle perished. The persons who should apply themselves to relieve the existing distress were the landlords, who received the profits and rents of the land upon which it prevailed. He was himself a proprietor in the district, and he had sent over meal and money to relieve the distressed people, and a tenant of his, an English gentleman, who employed a considerable amount of labour, had also sent over meal; but he wrote that morning to say that he must give the meal to the cattle, as the poor people could not use it. The particular district in which his pro- perty was situate was perhaps better off than the northern portion, but still he entertained the belief that the landlords were the proper persons to provide a remedy for any distress that prevailed, though of course he should not object if, under the circumstances, a grant of public money were made in aid, because he believed that a portion of it would return to himself as a landlord.


said, it had been shown that distress prevailed to an alarming extent, and that the present law was insufficient to meet that distress. It was said the poor did not go into the unions, but in Erris the poorhouse was twenty miles distant from some portions of the district. They were told that seventy families in one small district were suffering from fever and dysentery, and yet, because they did not go into the poorhouse, it was suggested that they must be in a good position. He thought it most reasonable that the House should agree to the Address.


said, he disapproved of making paupers by wholesale by taking the small farmers into the poor houses. The effect of so doing would be most disastrous for the country. With regard to throwing the burden upon the landlords, the idea was quite erroneous. It might be all very well for an hon. Gentleman like the Under-Secretary for the Home Department (Mr. Clive), who had bought his property at an advantageous rate, to say the landlords should provide relief, but the case was different with landlords who had not so obtained their property. If all the people went into the poorhouse the land would be unfilled, the rents could not be paid, and the rates could not be levied. The debate recalled painful recollections, but there could be no doubt that the Poor Law was insufficient to meet a famine in Ireland. There were Resolutions on the books of the House to that effect. From what sources the relief was to come was the difficulty. Formerly there had been rates in aid and other plans had been resorted to. But as he had said the Poor Law was not a means of meeting a famine—a fact which he hoped would gain weight before a Bill at present before the House, the object of which was to throw the sick poor of Ireland on the rates for relief, came on for discussion.


pointed out that in similar cases affecting England the mode of proceeding had always been first to establish the facts clearly and ac- curately by means of an inquiry before a Select Committee; and he could not with a safe conscience give his assent to the Resolution unless he had more accurate information with regard to the alleged facts upon which it was founded. He would abstain from expressing any opinion as to whether the ordinary administration of the Poor Law in Ireland was sufficient to meet the distress which existed in Erris, but speaking in the abstract, his own feeling in the matter coincided with that of the hon. Under Secretary (Mr. Clive) who thought the remedy for such calamities rested mainly with the landlord. In England the landlord was the first person looked to for a remedy in all cases of distress arising from what might be called the action of Providence. It was only after ordinary means had failed, when the landlords were exhausted, and when the ratepayers could no longer furnish means that application was made to the superior authorities to furnish support from the resources which were not ordinarily applicable to such purposes. If this were a case of emergency, if the facts were as stated, his vote would certainly be for the Motion, but as he had said he could not give it with a safe conscience until they had been distinctly established before a Select Committee in the usual way.

Motion made, and Question put, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to direct that steps may be taken to relieve the great distress now prevailing in Erris and other parts of Ireland.

The House divided:—Ayes 49; Noes 84: Majority 35.