HC Deb 17 February 1864 vol 173 cc695-706

in asking leave to introduce a Bill providing for the more equitable distribution of the Charge on Landed Property for the Relief of the Sick and Destitute, known by the name of Poor's Rate, said, the subject was one upon the right dealing with which the welfare of the labouring classes largely depended; and he knew full well how much the success of a measure depended on the skill and experience of him who brought it forward. He must, therefore, claim the indulgence of the House as one who had never previously taken any part in the debates. Being interested in the agricultural districts, he had attended meetings and read many works in which the insufficiency and discomfort of the dwellings of the labouring classes was strongly insisted upon; but he had never been able to find out that any gentleman, easy as it was to point out the defect, had suggested any adequate remedy. The evil was no new one. He was an old man, and could remember that, early in the present century, a society, called the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, was at work, and in its reports strongly urged, among other recommendations, that persons should turn their attention to the improvement of the dwellings of the poor, as the most likely means of giving them more self-respect and a higher tone of morals. A number of benevolent individuals acted upon the suggestion, and in their particular districts vast improvements took place; but the majority of persons throughout the country remained perfectly passive, and things had continued down to the present day very much in the same condition. Many years ago he held the office of chairman of the board of guardians of Aylesbury, and had, during that time, every opportunity of observing the manner in which the Poor Law worked in regard to the dwellings of the poor, and his experience was that it worked very defectively. In parishes where the lands were held by very few proprietors, these were enabled to combine and prevent the families of labourers necessary for the cultivation of the soil from settling within their precincts, the object of course being to avoid chargeability in case of illness. He found, from some statements he had prepared, that in four parishes comprised within the union of Aylesbury, there had been a falling off of thirty-seven residents, although in the same time there had been a total increase of 501 in the population within the union, and not more than eighty-seven of those 501 could be appropriated to the county town of Aylesbury. Farmers found that, practically, they could not get their lands well cultivated with less than three able-bodied men to every 100 acres, excluding the extra hands required at hay and harvest; and one able-bodied man to every five of the population was a full average. Applying this rule to the exclusive parishes to which he referred, he found that not more than a sixth of the requisite labourers were able to live in the districts where their work lay, the remainder being obliged to walk two, three, and sometimes four miles a day, morning and evening, to and from their work. He had been assured, on the authority of a medical man, who had practised for forty years in Aylesbury, that this amount of walking, superadded to the physical labour of the day, was productive in many cases of premature infirmity, debility, and even death. Even in an economical point of view, he thought country gentlemen and farmers would soon find out that the present system was a mistake, because fully 25 per cent must he deducted from the labourers' power; and it had been remarked, that farms where the labouring population were non-resident, could never be kept in as good condition, particularly as regarded drainage, as those where the men lived upon the spot. All the medical men he had consulted assured him that a change in the present system would greatly diminish the present charge for the poor in sickness and old age; and indirectly these circumstances must have an effect upon the amount of rent. The pith of the remedy which he proposed was the substitution of union rating for county rating. If the House permitted him to bring in the Bill, and he should be so fortunate as to pass it through its second stage, he should insert a clause that its provisions should not come into operation for three years, so as to give the farmers and landowners an opportunity of making their arrangements; and he should be very much mistaken if a large number of new cottages did not make their appearance within that time, as well as lead to the improvement of those in existence. Farmers would be much better pleased and feel more satisfied when their labourers were close at hand, and gentlemen would find the country more attractive by seeing a happy, well-conducted, and healthy peasantry around them; and those exorbitant rents which were exacted by speculators who built cottages in those crowded parishes would no longer exist. A landowner, when he considered the advantage he would gain in the additional work he would get from labourers who resided close to his own lands, would be well paid if he got three or four per cent for the outlay of his money in building cottages. He hoped he had said enough to induce the House to allow him to introduce the Bill, and he had no doubt that he should be able, at a future stage, to show them more conclusively that they had, for a long time, been following a mistaken system. The hon. Member concluded by moving for leave to bring in the Bill.


said, he would second the Motion, though he differed with the hon. Gentleman in many of the statements he had made, and he did so because he believed that it would open up the large and extensive question of the equalisation of the poor rates. It was proposed to limit the operations of the Bill to the agricultural districts; but he should seek to extend its provisions to the metropolis, where the poor rates varied from 1s. 4d. to 5s. and 6s. in the pound.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That leave be given to bring in a Bill for a more equitable distribution of the Charge on Landed Property for the Relief of the Sick and Destitute, known by the name of Poor's Rate."—(Mr. Bernard.)


agreed in much that had been said by the hon. Member who introduced the Motion, but he thought lie (Mr. Bernard) must see that it opened a much wider question, and involved the whole subject of the Poor Law. This was a question which pressed urgently on the attention of Parliament, and no greater proof of its difficulty and importance was required than the fact, that a Committee of that House had been taking evidence on it for two years, and had as yet arrived at no other conclusion than the necessity of its own re-appointment. There were two prominent and growing evils which required the earnest consideration of the Legislature. One was the increasing inequality of the pressure of the rates on the ratepayer, and the other was the hardship which the present system inflicts on the labouring classes, by preventing them from selling their labour to the best advantage, by taking it from one place to another, and depriving them of decent accommodation in the neighbourhood of their work. No doubt these facts would be denied by some persons. Every fact was contradicted in that House which bore ever so remotely on political questions. About ten years ago the Member for Worcestershire, whom he did not see in his place, published a pamphlet, of which he was good enough to send him a copy, and no doubt to other Members. This pamphlet contained a collection of Poor Law paradoxes. The most startling among them was, that the system of close parishes was very advantageous to the poor, and economical for the ratepayers at large through the country. Of course, he proved it by statistics. Selected statistics would prove any paradox in the world. For anything he knew, the hon. Member might be of the same opinion still. But the experience of the ten years and the common sense of the country at least was against him. He did not wish to overstate the case. He did not believe that, as had sometimes been said, cottages were pulled down to any large extent. But it came to the same thing, if they were not built nor repaired. Anti this was the case to a great extent in most of the agricultural districts. This was not a complaint, as some perhaps thought it, got up by The Times in the dull season of the year. The whole country was ringing with it, and it was discussed quite as much in provincial newspapers as in London. He had a letter in his hand from a gentleman who had recently sent a series of remarkable articles to a country paper, containing the result of his personal experience, during a number of excursions in a county distinguished for the perfection of its agriculture. The state of the cottage accommodation which he described was scarcely credible. It was a common case, which he met with almost everywhere, for seven, ten, or even twelve persons, to be huddled together in one small room. The misery and the indecency were past belief. This was a subject which demanded the attention of Parliament. The tendency of the law was to drive the poor out of agricultural districts, and to concentrate them in the town parishes. He did not deny that there might be attracting forces in the towns, as well as repelling forces in the country. Endowed charities might exercise some influence and the greater prospect of chance employment. But the great cause of all was the law. When we come to consider the remedy, he did not think the measure now proposed would be of any perceptible advantage. The complaint of the unequal burden of rating lay not so much between parish and parish as between union and union. Take the case of the metropolis. There were great parishes in the west which were unions in themselves, such as Paddington, and St. George's, Hanover Square, where the rates were as low as fourpence and fivepence in the pound; and there were unions in the east where nearly all the parishes were very heavily burdened. A great deal of evidence had been taken in the last few years before Committees, and the weight of it was certainly in favour of a larger extension of the area of rating. Those who had the largest experience of the working of the law were in favour generally of county rating. There was Mr. Corder, the clerk to the guardians at Birmingham, Mr. Moore, from Leeds, and a gentleman with large experience in London, the vice-chairman of the West London Union, Mr. Potter. These and others were all in favour of county rating. He would not dwell on the evidence from the city which he had the honour to represent, further than to say that the three gentlemen, who came as witnesses from Norwich, representing very different political opinions, were umanimous in advocating a large extension of the area of rating beyond the union. But the objection is raised against proposals for the extension of the area of rating, that they are attempts to charge one man's property with the burden of another man's debts. He did not think this was a fair statement of the case. The intention of the Poor Law was, that the property of the country should be charged with the support of the poor. The unequal distribution was an accident, and had nothing to do with the principle of the law. The law of settlement was introduced about the middle of the last century, for the purpose, as it was said, of preventing paupers from wandering about the country to places where the "best stock" was. All the complications and inequalities of the law had grown up, as all English law grew up, from the necessity of providing for practical details. Parochial distinctions were made not upon any principle, but in hope of securing efficient supervision. And what had been the course of legislation? Parliament had never recognized the claims of parishes or districts to a permanently lighter share of the burden than was borne by others. When the Irremovable Act was passed in 1846, the immediate effect of it upon the city of Norwich was to throw on the rates an additional charge of £4,000 a year. Birmingham, he believed, Salisbury, and many other places, suffered by it in the same way. The Act of 1861 still further increased the pressure on those places. He did not blame the policy of those acts. He thought them just and necessary. But he argued from them that Parliament did not recognize the claims of different parts of the country not to have their proportionate burdens increased. He thought that the principle of those acts must be carried still further. Nobody now advocated removals. They were given up in theory, though sometimes carried out in practice. And the law of settlement must be given up too. We were coming to that. It was certain that it could not be long maintained. The poor man would soon have a right to relief, wherever he became destitute. But while we were merciful to the poor we must be just to the ratepayer, and not allow the burden of relief to be concentrated upon particular places. Union rating would he of little use, because the area was too small. A national rate was out of the question, because there could be no proper supervision. It would be little better than throwing the whole relief of the poor on the consolidated fund. A county rating was in every respect the most convenient principle. It offered a fair approach to equality. It was not too large an area for management. Several witnesses before the Committee had pointed out how it could be worked efficiently. Above all, it was an ancient and well understood division, which would require no new complicated arrangements. He did not oppose the Motion of the hon. Member opposite. He hoped his principle would, before long, be carried much further. As his Bill stood, he thought very little good was to be expected from it.


said, he would not offer any opposition to the introduction of the Bill, although it opened the door to a much larger question than was contemplated by its framer. He believed that the proposal would entail such grievous consequences upon agricultural parishes in the neighhourhood of manufacturing towns, that derived no benefit from the labour of those towns, that it could not meet with the sanction of the House.


doubted whether the measure of his hon. Friend would have the slightest effect in bettering the condition of the poor. A great deal had been said about the want of cottages and the manner in which they were allowed to go to decay; but these evils were not chargeable on the law of settlement. The great expense of building cottages and keeping them in repair, and the small return on the money invested, were the causes of the insufficiency of cottage accommodation. Sometimes landowners were to blame. He knew a gentleman of large income who allowed his cottages to go to decay, when £100 or £120 would have put them into repair. As a rule, however, the landowners in rural districts were by no means a rich class. In other cases cottage accommodation was deficient because the landlord, although rich, was non-resident, and did not care for the poor. In justice to the agricultural districts, however, it should be remarked, that however wretched their cottages might be, they would bear a comparison with the house accommodation in large towns. He scarcely knew a cottage which had not a bedroom as well as a sitting-room; but in London very few labourers were able to rent two rooms. The agricultural labourers were thus better lodged than the same class in towns. He did not know how this was to be remedied: it was not the law of settlement which prevented the building of cottages, but the inadequacy of the return to the expense. Much had been said concerning the great distances which the labourers had to traverse in going to and from their work; it was sometimes very great, but it was a fact that sometimes farm labourers liked to live at a distance from their work. He had a man in his employ who, it was calculated, in the course of thirty years had walked 30,000 miles to and from his work, when he might have lived close by. In many cases it was impossible for the labourer to live near his work. He knew an estate on which £4,000 had been laid out in building cottages, the return being only some £10 or £15 in rents. He admitted, however, that this outlay had been very serviceable to the parishes; for the poor rate on this property which used to be £300, was now only £100, so that the saving of £200 a year in poor rate was not, perhaps, a bad percentage on the outlay. Poor rates might be reduced by employing a better class of labourers and improving their habitations; and this was a reduction of the poor rates made in the most legitimate way. He did not think the measure proposed would be of the slightest benefit in preventing a continuance of the abuses which at present existed.


said, he did not think it desirable at present to enter into a general discussion of the question on the Motion for leave, for it could be taken more advantageously at a future stage. It was not the intention of the Government to oppose the introduction of the Bill—indeed, as far as he understood its object, he agreed with it. But the question was a much larger one than it appeared to the view of his hon. Friend. The hon. Member proposed to substitute the area of the union for that of the parish for the purpose of the rate for the relief of the poor. This was a plan that had from the first received the approval of the Poor Law Board; it was at first contemplated as part of the Act itself; the very competent man who originally presided as Commissioner had always been for it; and it was distinctly recommended by a Committee of that House. His able predecessor (the late Mr. Baines) introduced a Bill for the purpose, sanctioned by the Government of the day; and if he might refer to his (Mr. Villiers) own opinion, as having assisted in the original inquiry in 1833, he could say that from that time to the present he had always preferred it to the parochial system. If, however, he was asked why, then, he had not proposed it since he had been at the Board, he could only say that he believed he should not have succeeded in carrying it without having first overcome some of the difficulties which had caused its rejection before. One difficulty always had been with regard to the principle on which the contributions to the general fund should be raised. The effect of the parochial system bad been to exempt some parishes entirely, and to cause in others every kind of inequality, and injustice besides, in the distribution of the burden. It was difficult, therefore, to induce parishes that were exempt or slightly rated to support the principle of equal contribution, based on the value of all the property rated; and the resistance on account of this interest had always been extremely influential. Again, it was said that the guardians would not be as careful in dispensing the relief drawn from the union or common fund, as they would be when it proceeded from their own parishes; and again, it was said that the poor would not be so well taken care of as under the parochial system; and these reasons had usually been sufficient to secure the rejection of a Bill for union rating. Since, however, he had been at the Board, measures had been introduced which, in a great degree, removed these objections; for an Act—the Union Assessment Act—had been passed subjecting the property of the union to be rated according to its value, in support of the common fund, and also a measure passed securing to everybody who had lived in a union for three years the status of irremovability, placing, also, several other charges upon the same fund; so that they were in a position then to see the right principle of rating in the union established; and also, by having very largely increased the amount of that fund, of judging of the manner in which guardians administered the funds drawn from that source, as compared with that derived from the parishes alone. He believed he could say, that these measures had given general satisfaction. The justice of the principle of rating was universally admitted, and, if he had been correctly informed, the guardians in many places, observing the large amount of the relief incurred by charges upon the common fund, were becoming far more vigilant than they had ever been before. The inequality of the rate formerly had also been greatly increased on another account—namely, the very inaccurate and improper way that property had been valued for the purpose of rating. This, again, had been rectified by the admirable manner in which the Assessment Act was operating, which secured an intelligent valuation, and an annual revision of it, in every parish, by assessment committees, and which would really secure justice in the system of rating, which had not existed before. They had, then, satisfied the chief conditions of a safe union system, instead of the capricious and irregular parochial system. He need not say, moreover, that the status of irremovability having been secured to all who had lived in a union for three years, the great evils to the poor in being constantly subject to removal had been very greatly mitigated. His only question, therefore, as to the measure which, the hon. Gentleman had proposed was, whether it might not be well to allow the great benefits which had arisen from these measures to be more generally observed before pressing the measure at that time? He was not prepared to say that the hon. Member was not right, but this consideration had had its influence with him. The hon. Member very likely knew the country better than he did, and knew that people were ready for the measure he had proposed. He should be glad of it if it was so, and he should support it at all events; the measure had been nearly twenty years before the House; it was, therefore, no novelty. It certainly was far short of what the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Cox), or the hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. Warner), proposed, but still it would be a great improvement.


said, it was now the custom to see measures brought before the House by private Members before they decided against them, and therefore he would not oppose the Bill at its present stage. The President of the Poor Law Board had led the House to believe that the operation of the Irremovable Poor Bill had been to throw one-half of the maintenance of the poor on the unions instead of on the parishes. But a large portion of the burden so cast on the unions arose from lunatic paupers. If that item were taken away the proportion would not be nearly one-half. The question of cottage accommodation had been dragged rather unnecessarily into this debate, but he agreed with his hon. Friend (Sir Baldwin Leighton) that it had nothing to do with the law of settlement. The people who wrote so much about cottage accommodation argued that cottages should be built like farm outbuildings—a certain number for every farm. But if the farmer were left to make a bargain with his labourers in regard to their cottages, the poor would be anything but benefited by the change. If there were to be a great shifting of the burden of poor rates, as some proposed, landowners would be driven, not to increase the number of cottages on their estates, but to lessen them. The commercial principle was making advances in agriculture as in other things. The farmer found it more profitable to take on a number of labourers when there came a few fine days than to keep on the same number all the year round. In large parishes it was found that the land produced a higher rental than in smaller parishes where the labourer was constantly employed, and unions would in this respect resemble the larger parishes if a union rating were adopted. Boards of guardians would no doubt manage the poor more easily to themselves than at present, but for this reason—that no one would be interested in the difference. He believed that not only would the poor be much worse off under this Bill, but that, by shifting the burdens, landowners would be driven to recoup themselves in the best way they could. There would then be a call which it would be impossible to resist for a national rate. If they took £1,000 from the pocket of A and put it into the pocket of B, A would call out to be relieved by a more extended area. The poor rate in this country was, on the whole, now comparatively easy, and employment was found for the people except in Lancashire and Cheshire. But there might come a time when the people were out of work, and Parliament should be warned by the experience of Ireland as to the difficulty of finding in a large area the means of setting people to work. He should not have said so much on the present occasion had not the President of the Poor Law Board chosen the opportunity to make a strong speech in favour of union rating.


thought it desirable to have further experience of the working of the recent changes in the administration of the Poor Law. The law of settlement was becoming obsolete, but it was better that the alterations rendered necessary by the change of circumstances should be gradual. They had not had sufficient experience of the working of the Irremovable Poor Act and the Union Assessment Act, to justify them in taking the step now proposed. He should be sorry to see the relief of the poor extended over a wider area than it was at present, for he doubted whether, if the area of rating were materially extended, the supervision of the guardians would be so carefully exercised, in which case the poor would suffer materially.


said, that if the Government were willing to take the subject in hand, he would gladly transfer the Bill to their charge. After the statements of the President of the Poor Law Board and the speeches of his hon. Friends near him, it would be useless to proceed with his Bill during the present Session.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at Three o'clock.