HC Deb 20 February 1865 vol 177 cc456-68

moved, pursuant to notice, That the office of the one Secretary, rendered capable of sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons' House of Parliament by the ninth clause of the Poor Law Act, lately vacated ought to be abolished. He said, that this was not the first time he had brought this subject before the House. When the Poor Law Renewal Act was last introduced he took occasion to draw attention to the small amount of the duties the Secretary of the Poor Law Board performed in that House and at the office, and that, therefore, the post might very well be dispened with. He then moved that at the next voidance of the office it should be abolished; and he thought the House would, now the office was vacant, agree with him that it should he done away with. They had two officers in the House to represent the Poor Law Board, the President and the Secretary. When the Act which constituted them was passed, it was thought very desirable, as complaints were frequent and inquiries incessant as to the working of the law, that some one should always be in the House to represent the Board; but that necessity had now passed away, and one officer would be amply sufficient. He had carefully looked over Hansard, and he found that in the year 1864 the Parliamentary labours of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board, consisted in addressing the House about thirty times, and these were for the most part merely brief observations, or answers to questions in reference to a Bill connected with the Poor Law then before Parliament; and that was a year in which, owing to the Lancashire distress, there were more than a usual number of Poor Law subjects. But the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin), the Secretary, was not called upon to say a single word. In 1863 the President spoke fifty times and the Secretary three times, and then only when the President was absent on important business elsewhere. In 1862 the President addressed the House about forty times and the Secretary four times, while in 1861 the President had reason to address the House only twenty-two times and the Secretary not once. In 1860 the President spoke, but on twenty-four occasions the Secretary did not open his lips even once. So much for their Parliamentary labours. With regard to the duties which the Secretary discharged in his office, they were not easily to be ascertained in a direct way, but what they were could be judged of by other means. He did not wish to mention anything invidious with respect to the hon. Member for Northampton, who, he was sure, would not undertake any duty he could not conscientiously perform. But he found that the hon. Member was an officer of other important institutions. He was Chairman of a metropolitan bank, a Director of a provident society, and also of several railway companies, engagements which must necessarily take up a great deal of his time; but he was not to blame for that if his business at the Poor Law Board was so light as to enable him to undertake those duties, and certainly they did not require his presence in that House. The expenses of this Department were very heavy. He regretted very much that the expenses of the office itself were not examined into by the Committee appointed on the renewal of the Poor Law Board. This inquiry, the Right Hon. Gentleman who occupied the Chair, seems to have taken care was not entered on. He must say he thought that Gentleman ought rather to have been present as a witness before, than as a Member, much less Chairman, of the Committee—the Chairman having always great influence as to shaping the course of the inquiries entered on. In the year 1835, when it was first appointed, and when its labours were most arduous, the whole expenses of the Poor Law Board were £42,000 a year. In 1843 they had reached £56,000. In 1853 they more than doubled the first year, being nearly £90,000; while in 1865 the expenditure of the office alone amounted to £73,000. He was sure the noble Lord at the head of the Government did not intend to mislead the House when he said the other night that the Committee recommended that the office of Secretary should be continued. On looking at the proceedings he found that there were two Motions submitted to the Committee in reference to the officers connected with the Board. The first was that the Presidency should always be held by a Member of the lower House, but that was negatived. The other was proposed by the hon. Member for North Devon, that the expense of the central Board was excessive, and might be reduced by the abolition of the office of Parliamentary Secretary, and by such, further reduction as might be consistent with the efficient discharge of the duties of the Board. A good deal of discussion, he was informed, took place upon that, and eventually it was allowed to be withdrawn, because the Committee had not sufficient information before it to arrive at any conclusion respecting it. With him (Mr. A. Smith) the saving merely of a salary was only a secondary consideration. He could not help feeling that for many years the official element was becoming more and more powerful in this House. It was not only powerful as regard the individual placeholders in the House, but there were also the expectants. They always saw on questions of economy the occupants of the Treasury Benches voted together, and those who hoped to sit on those Benches generally voted with them, and against any fair, reasonable, and sound retrenchment. The fact was, however, that no evidence was taken upon the subject, and therefore it was not quite fair in the noble Viscount to say the Committee recommended the office to be continued. He hoped the House would vindicate itself against the charge made against it by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, of being guilty of reckless liberality, and it had been said that it would go down to history as the prodigal Parliament; but, if the House now supported the retention of this sinecure, they might indeed be justly charged with reckless liberality.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the office of the one Secretary, rendered capable of sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons' House of Parliament by the ninth Clause of the Poor Law Act, lately vacated, ought to be abolished."—(Mr. Augustus Smith.)


said, his hon. Friend had described the office of Secretary to the Poor Law Board as a sinecure which ought to be abolished, but he seemed to have forgotten what had been decided on this matter upon more than one occasion by the Hou3e. He also seemed to have forgotten what he was understood to say at an earlier part of his speech—namely, that he did not know much of the merits of the question, and that neither he nor the Committee upstairs knew what were the duties which belonged to the Office, and expressed his regret that the Committee did not inquire into the subject.


explained that what he stated was that it was not easy to ascertain what the office duties of the Parliamentary Secretary were.


That amounts to pretty much the same thing, for it assigns the reason why my hon. Friend has not become informed about them. My hon. Friend said that the Committee had not taken any evidence. Now, I beg to say that other persons have inquired into this Office, and have collected the information that was necessary to enable them to form an opinion upon the subject. This matter has been deliberately discussed upon three different occasions in this House, and when the hon. Member gave notice of his Motion I presumed that he had some new matter to submit to us. This Office was discussed when the Bill by which it was created was before this House. Again, in the House of Lords the question was discussed. It was then asked whether a Secretary of this Department should be in Parliament, and it was assented to. But there was a still more important occasion upon which this subject was very deliberately considered; that was before the Committee which was appointed to inquire into the salaries of Government Departments in the year 1850. That Committee endeavoured to satisfy themselves, first, whether they could not reduce the salaries of the staff of the Poor Law Board, and next whether it was possible or not to reduce the establishment. To convince themselves upon these points they called before them the late Mr. Baines, then President. A more conscientious man, I believe, never sat in this House, and he was called upon by the Committee to answer certain questions with the conviction on their part that they might rely upon what he stated. He was asked— Will you explain why it was thought necessary to have two paid Secretaries instead of one as under the old Commission? And he answered— The Committee will observe that now there is practically but one Commissioner. Formerly there were three, who divided the business among them, but the responsibility now rests upon one Commissioner exclusively; and the same amount of work that was formerly distributed among three Commissioners and one Secretary is now distributed among a President and two Secretaries. Mr. Bright.—Are you of opinion, Mr. Baines, that the expenses of your office, most particularly the staff of your Department, could be diminished?"—"I have considered the matter very fully with an anxious wish to effect a reduction, and I have consulted those of greater experience than myself, and the result of my deliberation is that it would not be possible to do with less with due regard to the efficiency of the public service. I do not know whether or not the hon. Member was in the House at that time, but if he will look at the composition of that Committee he will see that its members would not have been satisfied with the mere opinion of one of the persons connected with the Department if they had not thought that he had reason for what he said. They did not recommend that the establishment should be reduced. They only recommended that the salary of one of the Secretaries should be reduced. That was done, and there the matter was supposed to end. Last year, in the course of the general inquiry into the operation of the Poor Laws, an hon. Member raised this question—whether it was not possible to reduce the establishment? Nor was that a mere passing notice. The subject was deliberately discussed one day, and as it was thought that there were not Members enough present, or that the question had not been sufficiently considered, another day was appointed for the continuance of the discussion. On the second occasion there was a large muster of the Committee—I think about fifteen Members; the subject was discussed for two or three hours, and almost every Member of the Committee was heard. The argument which was employed was, if I recollect rightly, that there was no reason why the Secretary of the Poor Law Board should not sit in the House as well as the second representative of any other Department—the Under Secretaries of State, for instance, or the Vice President of the Board of Trade, or the Vice President of the Council; and it was, as I thought, in consequence of his conviction that that view was a sound one, that the hon. Member who made the proposition withdrew it. Has my hon. Friend any objection to that argument? If not, this Department stands upon the ground of every other Department. It is one where there is business enough for a President and two Secretaries, and I see no reason for excluding the Secretary from this House. In the Committee referred to there was no question of taking evidence on the matter, nor was there any occasion for it. The Committee was not appointed or controlled by the Government; and I beg to say, in answer to some reflections of the hon. Member on myself for presiding on that Committee, that I did so not at my own desire—for I declined to take the chair—but in consequence of the wish of the Committee. It is not a very agreeable post, presiding over these Committees, because other gentlemen get tired of sitting and are able to withdraw; but the chairman cannot do so. Therefore, when the hon. Gentleman charged me with having guided the Committee and having forced myself into the chair, he was speaking at random. I certainly thought that after all the discussion that has taken place on this Office, which it was quite as open to him as to any one else to learn, he would have come before the House with some fresh information upon the subject. If the hon. Gentleman succeeds in his Motion he will establish an important precedent, for I never remember an occasion where the House was asked to vote blindfold as they are now. I do not believe that my hon. Friend wishes to attack anyone belonging to the Establishment, or to do anything which would be unfriendly or ungracious to the Department. I believe that he is moving on higher grounds. I believe that he considers the influence of the Crown too strong in this House, and that it ought to he diminished, and to abolish this place is one way of doing that. [Mr. AUGUSTUS SMITH: Hear!] I am quite sure that he is acting upon these high and general grounds, the House, therefore, must bear in mind what are his objects. If he gets rid of this Office—and he is wise to commence with the Poor Law Board, because it is always easy to get up a cry against that Department—how long will he be before he attacks the Board of Trade, or the Privy Council, or some of the other Establishments? I have not the least doubt that he is acting conscientiously, but I hope that he will allow the House to exercise freely their judgment as to the manner in which he is seeking to accomplish his objects, or whether they are objects in which they agree with him. I venture to say that he has selected rather an unfortunate moment for making his attack upon the Poor Law Board. He would have had a greater advantage if he had done it at the time when he says that he was not disposed to assail the Office, because its cost was less. He has chosen a time when the work of the Office is far greater than it ever was be-fore. Since I have been at the Poor Law Board there has been more work done and more imposed upon the President than was ever the case before. There have been the public works in Lancashire, which has been the occasion of much anxiety—has involved the Board in a vast amount of correspondence, and in endless interviews with persons interested—there has been the work which has resulted from the Bill proposed by the Poor Law Board for providing the assessment of property in unions—a very difficult matter and one which gives rise to a great deal of trouble and correspondence. Besides all this, additional permanent business has been thrown upon the Office by the transfer, within the last two years, from the Privy Council to the Poor Law Board of the management of the education of the poor, so far as it depends upon State grants, which of itself has produced upwards of 500 Reports, all of which have to be read and considered. I do not think that my hon. Friend knows what the work of the President of that Board is, and I do not wish him so ill, as that he should know it from personal experience; but if he succeeds in this Motion, I assure him he ought to go further, and say that the President of the Poor Law Board ought not to sit in Parliament and certainly not to have a seat in the Council. Because, at present, what Mr. Baines said is perfectly true, that the work which was formerly distributed among three Commissioners, now devolves upon one. There is not a single matter which is supposed to receive the sanction of the Board for which the President is not responsible, whatever he may think. The duties of the President of the Board are exceedingly heavy. There is not a question which may arise upon anything which affects the moral, physical, or economical condition of the poor that must not be examined into, and decided by him, and in order that he may give a decision he must read all the papers that bear upon the subject. If a medical man misconducts himself or neglects a patient, an inquiry is held, evidence is taken, and it must all be read by the President before he can give his sanction to the report, or to opposite representation which may be made. The same course has to be pursued in the case of the chaplain and other officers or matters that are referred to him. Whatever receives the sanction of the Board, must be inquired into by the President. Then, during every Session that I have been at the Board, there has been a Committee, over which I have had to preside, occupying three or four hours of the morning, and only concluding when this House begins to sit. I have had then to come here to attend in my place in the House, and afterwards to return to my office and attend to business there for two or three hours. That alone would be a reason for having a Secretary in this House who might answer any question that is asked, or attend to any business that has to be done. I do not know how much the hon. Gentleman thinks that the President ought to do, but not having the advantage myself to sit for a very small constituency, feel that I am perfectly unable to do all that might be required of the President of the Poor Law Board in Parliament, and, I do venture to say, that I require some assistance. And although I should never have asked for further assistance or complained of having too much work, I do not hesitate to say that if you abolish this Secretary ship, one of the first things which you must do, and that before a year is out, is to appoint another Commissioner. I am convinced that if you inquire into the matter, with a view to learn the truth, you will find that you cannot get the business done properly or satisfactorily by the President alone. That is the result of my experience. I have no interest in saying so, because I do not suppose that any one could survive another year at that Board after having been there five years already, and, therefore, I am only speaking with a view to the future. There is no more objection, so far as I can see, to the President of the Poor Law Board being a Member of the Cabinet, than there is in the case of any other head of a public Department; but that would be impossible, if the hon. Member carries his Motion. You might, it is true, have a re-distribution of the service in this Office; and you might have another Commissioner instead of a Secretary in this House, but there should be some more valid reason than any that had been urged by my hon. Friend for thus abruptly changing the arrangement that at present exists, or to induce the House to declare that it was wrong in the decision to which it has on other occasions arrived.


said, he felt bound to support the Motion of his hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Augustus Smith). He was happy to bear testimony to the conscientious and able manner in which his duties while at the Poor Law Board had been fulfilled by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin), nor did he wish to say a single word against the Department itself. It had well performed its functions in the case of the people of Lancashire, who were deeply thankful for its exertions in their behalf, and by whom it was regarded with a higher degree of favour than it had ever been before. The ground, then, on which he should vote for the Motion was because he believed that it never was intended, when the Act of 1847 was passed, that there should be in the House of Commons both a President and a Secretary connected with the Poor Law Board. In the discussions upon that Act it was stated that the intention was, that there should be a Secretary sitting in that House, while the President should have a seat in the House of Lords; and the then Secretary for the Home Department (Sir George Grey), in bringing in the Poor Law Administration Bill, said— There will also be two Secretaries, and it is proposed that the President and one of the Secretaries shall have seats in Parliament. I do not say they both shall have seats in this House, but it is essential that the Board should be repre- sented in this House by either the President or Secretary."—3 Hansard xcii. 343. Now, he believed the fact to be that the President of the Poor Law Board had never since the passing of the Act occupied a seat in the House of Lords, but that be had sat, in conjunction with one of the Secretaries, in the House of Commons, so that the action of the Government in the matter had scarcely been in accordance with the intentions expressed when the measure was introduced. That being so, the better course, he thought, to pursue would be, instead of filling up the vacant Office, to postpone the appointment of a Parliamentary Secretary until the whole question of Poor Law administration came before the House, as it must do at a later period of the Session. The question would meantime, he hoped, be taken into their serious consideration by the Government. The appointment of a Parliamentary Secretary to the Board gave them no doubt an additional vote, but no one, he thought, could fairly maintain that the services of a second representative of the Department were required in that House. His hon. Friend (Mr. Augustus Smith) brought forward the Motion now for the reason that the Office was vacant. Any one who sat in the House, or who referred to Hansard, would soon find that it was unnecessary to have both the President and Secretary sitting in that House. Indeed, he believed his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Gilpin) had during the five years he held office spoken only five times on Poor Law matters, simply because in the discharge of his duty he was not called upon to do so oftener.


said, he had not intended to take any part in the discussion of a Motion which only very narrowly escaped being a proposal for the abolition of himself, nor should he have risen at all but for the personal turn which, owing to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Augustus Smith), the debate had taken. That his hon. Friend should call the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Poor Law Board a sinecure, simply proved that he did not know in what the duties of the office consisted. Of his own conduct while he occupied the Office he was not about to enter into any defence. Upon that point he should leave it to those Gentlemen upon both sides of the House who bad had occasion to refer to him for information upon Poor Law matters, to form an opinion. He, of course, he might add, acquitted his hon. Friend of any intention to make an attack upon him; but it so happened, that like a celebrated knight of old, the hon. Gentleman had set his lance in rest to have a tilt at certain things he termed abuses—monsters of his own creation—and had run against the Poor Law Board, which he thought he had discovered to be merely a windmill. He, however, who had been inside that windmill as well as outside, could inform his hon. Friend that there was good work done there, and that if he thought the Poor Law Board was over weighted with officers, he was greatly mistaken. He had heard it suggested that the Head of the Board might be in the House of Lords, and it was not improbable that when the party opposite came into power that might be the case. He had made that remark simply because there was in the other House a nobleman of high talent, and in every way qualified to be at the head of a Department to the business connected with which he had devoted years of practical study. If such an appointment were made, would it be tolerated by the House of Commons that the Department should be unrepresented within its walls? He, for one, thought not. The hon. Member for Truro had alluded to his attention having been taken up by other matters than those which properly belonged to his office as Secretary to the Poor Law Board. To that he would reply with perfect good humour that his hon. Friend would find it very easy to satisfy himself, by inquiring whether he had or had not duly performed the duties which devolved on him in his public capacity, and if he had, that it was no more the business of his hon. Friend to inquire into his other engagements than it was his own to inquire into his hon. Friend's relations with his tenantry in the islands of Scilly. He had no personal interest in this matter; he was not likely ever to be again Secretary of the Poor Law Board, but he had this advantage, at least, over his hon. Friend, that he knew from experience what he was speaking of, what work had to be done in the Office, and he believed that if the House knew as well as he did the amount of that work they would not think that the office of Secretary to the Board ought to be abolished.


said, he was a member of the Committee to which allusion had been made that evening, and the question had been discussed whether the Parliamentary seat of the President of the Poor Law Board should be confined to the House of Commons. That proposition was, however, negatived, and it then followed as a matter of course that there should be a Parliamentary Secretary; otherwise, if the President happened to be in the other House, there would be no one in the House of Commons to answer questions connected with the administration of the Department,


I think the question at issue scarcely admits of argument after the able statement of my right hon. Friend near me (Mr. C. P. Villiers). I wish, however, the House to consider what is the tendency and what would be the probable effect of the Motion of the hon. Member for Truro. He says the Government is too strong in this House; but a very different opinion has more than once been expressed by many hon. Members. I have heard complaints made that the different Departments are not sufficiently represented here, in order, face to face with the House of Commons to explain and account for the conduct of those Departments. We were told last year that there were too many of the representatives of some of the great Deparments of the public service in the House of Lords, and that it was a constitutional principle that this House should have in it Members of all the Executive offices of the State, in order that full information with respect to them might be given to hon. Members when they required it, and defence and explanation offered for conduct that might be impugned. My right hon. Friend has stated that his public duties elsewhere might interfere from time to time with his being present here, and if there were no Parliamentary Secretary there would then be no person to furnish that information. As to the opinion of my hon. Friend (Mr. Augustus Smith) that the Office is a sinecure, I think that the statement of my right hon. Friend (Mr. C. P. Villiers), confirmed by that of my hon. Friend (Mr. Gilpin), who lately filled the office of Parliamentary Secretary, and whose valuable assistance I regret to say we have lost, completely disposes of the allegation that the Office is a sinecure. There is no more reason, in my opinion, why this Secretary ship should be abolished than that connected with any other of the public Departments, and I do hope that as the Office is necessary to the proper working of our system of Parliamentary responsibility the House will not accede, on what I cannot help thinking insufficient grounds, to the Motion of my hon. Friend.


could not see why the Poor Law Board should have two representatives in that House, and the Department of Woods and Forests not one. A Committee of that House had recommended that there should not be a second representative of the Poor Law Board in that House, and he thought the noble Lord at the head of the Government ought to have taken that opportunity of correcting—without any change in the number of office-holders in Parliament—the anomaly of the double representation of the Poor Law Board and of no representation of the Woods and Forests. He wished to see all Departments represented.


said, the hon. Baronet the Member for Evesham had overlooked this fact, that the Poor Law Board was a body controlling the free action of the ratepayers and magistrates throughout the United Kingdom, and, therefore, could not be said to form part of the general representation of the kingdom, whereas the Woods and Forests had to perform duties of a purely economical character. This made it doubly important that an official from that Department should always be present in the House to answer questions.


complained that he had been entirely misrepresented by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. C. P. Villiers), and explained that he did not object to the representation of the Poor Law Board in that House, but he did complain that it should be represented by two Members; what he opposed was superfluous representation, and in his opinion one officer would be quite sufficient. In the case of other offices which had a double representation, one representative sat in the other House of Parliament. At present it was more largely represented than any other public Department of the Executive.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 17; Noes 193: Majority 176.