HC Deb 08 July 1863 vol 172 cc389-97

Order for Second Beading read.


said, he hoped this Bill would enable many cases of destitution hitherto without adequate relief, to be properly provided for. Although it was true that all persons in destitution had a right in this country to claim relief, wherever they might be, the parochial authorities were enabled with impunity to violate the provisions of the law; and it appeared that the Poor Law Board could not cope with those authorities when they refused to administer the relief which they were justly bound to provide. The subject attracted the attention of the House some years ago, and an Act was passed authorizing the Poor Law Board to parcel out the metropolis into six districts, for the purpose of affording relief to the casual poor; but that legislation had remained inoperative, and all persons who had been in the habit of passing through the streets of the metropolis, either by day or night, could not have failed to observe the want of proper administration of the law with regard to the casual and destitute poor. In some instances starvation had resulted from the parish authorities neglecting to afford necessary assistance in time. He trusted the present measure would put an end to the painful state of things to which he had adverted. By the Bill, the metropolis would be constituted into one district, presided over by a Board, for the purpose of the relief of casual poor, and the Poor Law Board would have the power of compelling by a writ of mandamus all boards of guardians, overseers, and other officers to carry into effect the provisions of the existing law. Thus security would be obtained for the administration of proper relief to the casual poor, many of whom would rather die in the streets than avail themselves of the relief offered at present in some workhouses. Many of the casual poor wards were in a most disgraceful state and entirely unfit for their purpose; but by one of the clauses of the present Bill—the 8th—provision was made for affording, without any luxury, the accommodation that ought to be provided for human beings. It was provided that separate and proper sleeping accommodation should be provided for every person. Another objection to the existing system was that the hours of admission were restricted, and the masters of workhouses had the power of refusing relief in cases which they deemed not to be cases of emergency. He submitted that such restrictions were not applicable where it was self-evident that the persons applying were in actual want of the accommodation they asked for. He proposed in his Bill that every asylum for the relief of casual poor should be open for the admission of poor persons at all hours, day and night, and that every person alleging destitution should be ipso facto entitled to admission. In order to prevent improper persons from availing themselves of the provisions of the Bill, he proposed that the authorities might, whenever they deemed it expedient, prescribe to the persons admitted for relief, a task of work for a time not exceeding eight hours.

Moved,That the Bill be now read 2a.


said, that if very great facilities were afforded for the admission into workhouses of casual poor, a great deal of mischief was likely to be done. In a very large majority of cases, these tramps were not only vagrants, but thieves, and their robberies were almost always committed on the poor. He thought, therefore, that care should be taken not to encourage such persons, who he did not believe were exposed to the hardships and privations described by the noble Lord. He did not see the necessity of the provision that the asylums for the reception of casual poor should be open at all hours, for people could not become completely destitute all of a sudden, and therefore, when they sought the refuge of an asylum, they should go there at reasonable hours. No doubt, deaths by starvation had occurred, but not among tramps—they occurred to persons who had a repugnance to enter the workhouse, and not from a refusal of relief. One of the clauses of the Bill would make the tramps very comfortable in their sleeping quarters; but he did not see why they should complain if they were not at present worse off than soldiers during the night. The present Bill applied only to London; but if it should become law, there was danger of its being extended to the country at large, and that expensive night asylums would have to be provided everywhere. In his opinion, the Bill would tend to increase the number of vagrants.


thanked the noble Lord for interesting himself in this important subject, because the moment a metropolitan Member introduced a Bill in reference to the metropolis he was suspected of having some unfair object in view for the advantage of his own constituents. The subjeet was one well worthy the consideration of the House, and he regretted that it was so late in the Session that they could not discuss the Bill with the prospect of its passing into law before the prorogation. The main principle of the Bill had already been recognised by Parliament, and it was admitted that a grievance existed with which Parliament ought to deal. An Act was passed about twenty years ago, but from some cause or other it had never been carried out. The question which the House had to consider was why the existing law on the subject had failed, and whether there ought not to be further legislation to carry it practically into effect. He believed that it failed in its fundamental principle in providing district asylums in the metropolis, as there was no mode by which the casual poor in the metropolitan districts could be described, and hence there were constant conflicts as to the question in which district a casual pauper should be relieved. The Bill would remedy that evil, and remove all possible conflict on that ground. He admitted the great difficulties of the subject, but these difficulties might be removed if they would set about with determination to do it. Asylums might be established and conducted in such a manner that the general public would feel that there ought not to be any casual vagrants wandering about the streets at night. If such a feeling were created, a great boon would be conferred on the public. It was said that the asylums under the present Bill would encourage vagrancy. That, however, would depend very much on the way in which the asylums were managed. If they were inconsiderately managed, vagrancy, no doubt, would increase, but the object should be to have them managed so stringently that no poor person would feel any enthusiasm in going to them, but would apply for relief solely to avoid the dire necessity of starving in the streets. Rather more discretion was conferred in this measure on the Poor Law Board than those who had the care of the poor in the metropolis would be disposed to approve. The Bill could not, however, be regarded as a prac- tical proposal; but when it assumed that form, it would deserve consideration. There could be no question that it was most desirable to clear the streets at night from all vagrants, and to make such arrangements that it should be known that any vagrant who was abroad after dark was out on suspicious business, and not because he was without shelter. If the Bill were introduced again, it ought to be at a very early period of the Session, so that every board of guardians should have an opportunity of considering it. There would no doubt, be some opposition to it; but if any Petitions were presented against it by wealthy parishes, such as Paddington or St. George's, Hanover Square, on the ground that it added ½d. or 1d. in the pound to the light rates which they already paid, he trusted the House would treat such remonstrances with the scorn and contempt which they deserved.


said, he did not believe that the wealthy parishes with which he was connected would oppose any measure that was calculated to efficiently relieve the casual poor. He regretted that the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) did not take up this question himself, instead of advocating the principle of the Bill, and condemning the Bill itself, as containing none of the provisions which it ought to contain. His chief objection to the Bill was, that it would take to a certain degree the control of the expenditure of the rates out of the hands of the ratepayers. He believed, too, that the Bill was a step towards the general equalization of poor rates. What were called the casual poor were not always those who were deserving of charity, but many of them were those who made a trade of vagrancy. He thought the Bill dealt with a subject that was too extensive to be taken up by a private Member, and that it was one that ought to taken up and dealt with by the Poor Law Department of the Government.


said, that this Bill merely sought an extension of a principle which had been recognised over and over again by the Poor Law Board. The principle of irremovability after a three years' residence had been recognised, and their relief had been removed from the parishes and placed on the union. We lived in a great metropolis, in which a mass of casual poor were wandering in the streets, and the principle of the Bill was that the general metropolis should provide for the relief of those casual poor. That was a just principle. In many parishes of the metropolis provision was made for the casual poor, while in others there was none; so that when the casual poor applied for relief in the parishes in which no provision was made for them, they were sent to the parishes in which provision was made. That was unfair, and the Bill provided that every parish should contribute equally for the general object. The rich parishes did not pay their fair share to the relief of the poor, and so parishes such as St. George's, Hanover Square, and Paddington and Marylebone, invariably opposed such a measure as this.


said, it was a mistake to suppose that the wealthier parishes were seeking to relieve themselves at the expense of the poorer ones:—on the contrary, the present Bill had been introduced at the instance of London parishes, and especially of several in the West End. In 1844 an Act was passed for the establishment of asylums for the casual poor, and also for schools; but it had remained in abeyance ever since. It was not the fault of the rish parishes of London that that Act was not carried out, for more than one of them took steps to carry it out, but found it impracticable to do so. The Bill now before them proposed to re-enact that Act with the exception of a single clause. This question, however, was too large and important to be dealt with successfully except by the Poor Law Board, and it would be well to have reports from the police and workhouse authorities before any legislation were attempted. In some of the workhouses the casual wards were very good, and in others they were very bad. The want of uniformity was the great difficulty of the case. It was found that the least restriction, such as requiring the casual poor who were admitted to take a bath, had the effect of sending them to another parish where that condition was not enforced. Another great difficulty was that by these asylums they might be giving a lodging during the night to thieves, and setting them free to pursue their depredations during the day.


said, that as one of the promoters of the Bill, he should be very glad to hand over the subject to the Poor Law Board. What was wanted was the establishment of a uniform system of relief for the casual poor of the metropolis on the common purse principle. It was monstrous that there should be some wealthy parishes whose poor rates were almost nil, while poor parishes were paying several shillings in the pound.


said, the reason of the failure of the Act that was passed some years ago on this subject was, that it attracted all the thieves and vagabonds of the country to London; and he believed that the present would not be more successful if it were passed than the Act to which he referred. He should give it, therefore, his decided opposition; and if nobody else did so, he would divide the House upon it.


said, that he regretted the absence of the President of the Poor Law Board, which was owing to an important engagement elsewhere. He readily joined with other hon. Members in giving credit to the noble Lord (Viscount Raynham) for the benevolence of his intentions in bringing forward this Bill; but he would assure the House that the subject, so far from having been neglected by the Poor Law Board, had been for a long period, and was at this moment, under its consideration. It was one, however, surrounded with difficulties, and require a large amount of consideration before it could be brought before the House in the shape of a Bill. In 1837, in consequence of certain complaints received from the police, the Poor Law Board issued a circular to all the metropolitan unions advising them to relieve the destitute poor without previous inquiry as to settlement. Again, in 1838, the Board issued another circular instructing unions to afford relief in workhouses. The Poor Law Board found, that while a large number of unions had complied with the order of the Board, there were certain unions that had not, and therefore in 1839 workhouse officers were warned, on pain of dismissal, to receive urgent cases into the workhouse; and a similar order was issued in 1841. In 1844 the 7 & 8 Vict. was passed providing district asylums; and in 1845, following out the provisions of that Act, the Poor Law Board divided the metropolis into six asylum districts, and at the same time urged the appointment of boards of management. In 1846 there was a Committee of the House of Commons to inquire how far the Poor Law Board had exercised its powers as to the district asylums. It was then abundantly proved, by the evidence of the late Sir George Lewis and others, that it would not be wise to take for granted that the majority of those cases that came under the title of casual poor were all deserving and needy persons. Sir George Lewis stated that they included mendicants and others known to be generally persons of dissolute character, living habitually a life of laziness, imposture, and crime. There were, of course, many exceptional cases, and some of those cases had come under the kind notice of the noble Lord, and had had the effect of directing his attention to this particular subject. The Committee did not make a Report; but by the casting vote of the Chairman a Resolution was adopted to the effect that the establishment of district asylums would be beneficial and tend to suppress vagrancy in the metropolis; but the majority of parishes were so averse to being combined in unions for this purpose that the Committee recommended the Poor Law Board to suspend their orders for forming district asylums until the parishes were reconciled to the establishment of them. In 1858 the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Wilts (Mr. Sotheron Estcourt), then President of the Poor Law Board, issued a letter to forty-one unions asking their opinion as to the praticability of carrying out the measure that had been proposed. Nineteen unions objected altogether to the provisions of the Act of 1844, five were in favour of them, one expressed itself doubtful, one urged further inquiry, and from fourteen no answer at all was received. One of the first objections to the present Bill was the expense it would entail without sufficient representative supervision. It would, also be found that one large metropolitan board, such as the noble Lord proposed to constitute, would not act better, but rather worse, than separate boards appointed by the different unions. He was not surprised that the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) should have supported the Bill, because he had a suspicion that the ruling feeling of the hon. and learned Gentleman in matters of this sort was to bring about in some way or other the equalization of rating in the metropolis, and he probably regarded this measure as one step towards his darling, object. By Clause 5 the central board was to be compelled by mandamus, in the event of its not carrying out the regulations of the Act. That was a very questionable provision. It was not proposed to compel the Board to buy land for the establishment of asylums, or to force owners to sell land for such a purpose. Under Clause 6 every person alleging himself destitute would be entitled ipso facto to food and lodging for twenty-four hours' without inquiry. Those hon. Members who had been in the habit of attending meetings of boards of guardians would agree with him that it was not sufficient a man or a woman should say he or she was destitute to entitle the applicant to twenty-four hours' relief. But the noble Lord proposed that eight hours' work should be got out of the persons relieved as casual poor. How was that to be done? If the persons refused to work, they might, indeed, be sent to prison; but it would be impossible to get the work out of them. On the whole, seeing that no legislation could take place in the present Session, that some of the principal provisions of this Bill were strongly objected to, even by those who agreed in the general object with the noble Lord, and that the subject was at this moment under the consideration of the Poor Law Board, who were constantly obtaining additional information respecting it, he hoped the noble Lord would withdraw the Bill; and if he found that the Poor Law Board failed in what he deemed to be its duty, he could again draw attention to the subject.


said, that in the fact that this subject had been under the consideration of the Poor Law Board for upwards of twenty years, and yet that nothing had been done, was to be found the justification of the noble Lord for having introduced a Bill which had produced a very interesting discussion, and which he hoped might lead eventually to some useful result. Almost every speaker had acknowledged that there was an evil to be grappled with, and that at present the law provided no efficient or adequate remedy. He believed that the difficulty arose in a great measure from the large number of persons who were attracted to London by the unwise and indiscriminate charity of residents at the West End, and who sooner or later became chargeable upon the parishes at the East End. Hence the burden of their support was thrown in an undue degree upon the East End, and it was almost impossible to have any satisfactory or uniform system of dealing with them. No doubt, there were many obstacles in the way, for with some exceptions the casual poor might be regarded as a semi-criminal class; but what the noble Lord desired to do was to introduce a change by which the number of such persons might be reduced, while every requisite aid was given to the really deserving poor. It was true the Bill provided that every person who represented himself to be destitute should be relieved; but it also provided that he should do eight hours' work the next day, or, in case of refusal, be sent to prison. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gilpin) asked how that was to be enforced—how they could make a man do anything? Why, if he refused, he was to be sent to prison. The Government might, if they pleased, suggest a more satisfactory provision in Committee, but certainly the noble Lord was not obnoxious to the charge of desiring to encourage vagrancy. He believed the Bill might at least be made the basis of practical legislation; but he was afraid it could not be carried through in the present Session, and would consequently advise the noble Lord to withdraw it, on the understanding that the Government would themselves deal with the subject next year.


believed that the Act of 1844, if carried into effect by the Poor Law Board, would do all that the noble Lord required. The remedy had been provided by Parliament, and it only rested with the Poor Law Board to carry out the enactment. He complained that the Board never seemed to regard themselves as trustees for the poor as well as for the ratepayers, whereas their first object ought to be to make proper provision for the destitute, and their second to reduce the rates.


said, he should be glad to withdraw his Bill if he could obtain an assurance from the Poor Law Board that early next Session they would bring forward a measure to effect the object he had in view. If, however, it was the opinion of the House generally that he ought to withdraw the Bill, he was prepared to do so.

Order discharged:—Bill withdrawn.