HC Deb 09 April 1869 vol 195 cc508-18

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the question of Friendly Societies; and to move, "That this House is of opinion that the Government should introduce a Measure to remedy the present insufficient state of the Law in relation to Friendly Societies." In 1854 a Committee was appointed to inquire into the question, and upon their Report the Act 18 and 19 Vict., c. 67, was passed. It was found, however, that that Act did not remove the evils against which it was directed, and in 1860, another Bill was brought in by Mr. Estcourt to compel the making of returns to the Registrar General of Friendly Societies; but notwithstanding that Act the returns were most irregular and very faulty. In 1861, another Act was passed requiring every society to render accounts to every member, but that Act also had, he believed, been practically inoperative. The evils connected with these societies had forced themselves upon the attention of Members of both Houses of the Legislature, and Lord Devon's Return, obtained in 1857, no doubt did some good by publicity, but those evils still continued. On a recent occasion a case came before Mr. Selfe, one of the metropolitan police magistrates, in which a man named Bohan made a complaint against the West London Philanthropic Benefit Society, which held its meetings at the King's Head, Chelsea. The man had been a member for years, and £7 was to have been paid on the death of his wife. Well, his wife died; but when he went for the money he was told there were no funds, and that the society was dissolved. The magistrate in that case granted a summons against the secretary of the society, and said that these Burial Societies were a perfect pest, that a week never passed without his having some complaint against a landlord or a secretary; that those societies took the hard-earned pence of poor people for years, and refused to meet their engagements when the deaths occurred. But complaints of this kind were not confined to the metropolis. They were heard from every part of the country. In speaking of Friendly Societies he wished to divide them into two classes. There were the Burial Societies and there were such societies as the Odd Fellows, the Foresters, the Druids, the Shepherds, and others of a similar character. The Burial Societies were conducted in an entirely different manner from those very large associations. Mr. Tidd Pratt stated that, at the time of the passing of the Act of George III., the Legislature had in view Friendly Societies the members of which knew each other and managed their own business without the intervention of paid officers. But the difference between these old societies and the new Burial Societies was very great. The members of the latter were generally poor persons, and were spread all over the kingdom. These persons never participated in the management, which was conducted by a few individuals over whom the secretary generally had complete control, and it was said by Mr. Tidd Pratt that the only means by which these societies, known as Burial Societies, could be regulated was by exceptional legislation. Mr. Tidd Pratt gave certain statistics of ten societies from the Returns made to the other House, which showed that the number of insurers amounted to 486,612; but it was stated that the number of subscribers to those Burial Societies was altogether not less than 1,000,000. The gross receipts for the year amounted to £94,323, the expenses of management came to £36,301, and the payment on deaths amounted to £64,386; so that the payments on deaths and the expenses of management amounted to £6,364 beyond the total receipts for the year. The amount of the funds in hand was about 2s. 10d. per member; it was estimated that the whole amount insured was £1,500,000, and to meet the liabilities to insurers the assets wore £67,267. Mr. Tidd Pratt showed that for every 20s. spent for the relief of members the cost of management was, in the St. Patrick's Society, 16s. 3d. For every pound expended by the Victoria Legal Society, established in Birmingham, in the relief of members, they spent £3 on the management. The average was taken by Mr. Tidd Pratt of the amount each member had in the various societies, and it appeared that in St. Patrick's the amount of funds available for each member was 2s. 4d., in another 5s., and in the Victoria Legal Society, where they spent £3 to give away £1, the amount available for each member was 1d. Mr. Tidd Pratt stated that when the poor people, who had insured, wanted to recover their money they must go to Liverpool or Birmingham to get it in case of any dispute. The Royal Liver Society in Liverpool have in benefit 401,320 members; out of benefit, 52,602; and arriving at benefit, 75,996. The funds amounted to £117,930, or 4.s. 5d. for each member. They spent 15s. 9d. in expenses for every 20.s. in relief. Each of the committeemen received £520 per annum, and it appeared that no governor or committeeman of any life insurance office in England received salaries equal to those paid to the committee-men of the Royal Liver Society. The Victoria Legal in Liverpool was established in 1843; the yearly receipts were £28,000; members, 127,000; payments for funerals, £ 12,000; and nearly 20s. were expended for every 20s. paid for benefits. It appeared that the whole of the assets of Burial Societies, consisting of more than 1,000,000 insurers, and with £3,000,000 insured, including value of property and money in hand, amounted only to £181,000. In one of these societies the secretary's salary was raised to £400 a year, and a Judge decided that he had misappropriated nearly £4,000. and ordered it to be refunded; he had no power to do more, and the secretary set the law at defiance. A collector occasionally went from an old society to a new one on being allowed to keep the receipts to himself for the first six weeks. He told insurers in the old society that their only safeguard was to go with him to the new society, and the consequence was that those who took his advice got out of benefit with the old society, and were not at once in benefit with the new society; and in case of a death within the period of six weeks they had no claim upon the society they left, and no claim upon the society they entered, and were without any remedy at all. That was a state of things that ought to be remedied by the House. They had done too much by legislation or too little, because poor people joined a society under the supposition that because the rules had been certified by Mr. Tidd Pratt all was right and legal. But when Mr. Tidd Pratt certified the rules, all he said was that the rules were not contrary to law as put before him, and Mr. Tidd Pratt did not mean to intimate that he was satisfied that the tables of those societies were correct. Mr. Johnson—referring to the Liverpool societies in a pamphlet—stated that the extravagant expenditure was without parallel. The tables were in many cases drawn up by actuaries who never saw the rules, and who certainly would not have certified to the tables if they had known that so large an amount of the receipts went for management. It had been announced that Government would bring in a Bill to allow insurances of small amount to be effected in the savings bank department of the Post Office, but from the returns of the expenses already incurred in managing that business he doubted whether it would pay. Next, he would refer to such large societies as the Odd Fellows and Foresters. The Odd Fellows Association consisted of 412,000 members, and the receipts last year amounted to £499,000. The expenditure was £326,000, and the gain on the whole of the operations of the year was £172,000. The valuation of their property was £2,600,000, or more than £6 per head for every member. The Foresters had altogether over 300,000 members last year; the receipts amounted to £366,840; expended, £273,000; gain on the operations of the year, £93,000. It was said by the secretary that £40,000 ought to be put to another account, but after so doing the gain by the operations of last year would be more than £50,000. The total assets of the Foresters were over £1,000,000, so that each of the 300,000 members had £3 9s. 9d. to the good. Much might be said in favour of these societies, but still there was an obverse to the picture. The members, for instance, had not yet become sufficiently alive to the necessity of a valuation of their property, and it would be necessary in legislating on the subject to provide that regular periodical valuations should be made of each lodge in the kingdom. The objection hitherto was the cost. But this was a difficulty which might be removed. It would be well to consider whether the Board of Trade could not sanction the appointment of a competent actuary to make these valuations. Stability would be secured to these societies by compelling them to make a quinquennial or a septennial valuation of their assets. He was happy to say that the Friendly Societies themselves were becoming sensible of the importance of these valuations. Every report from the head-quarters of those societies for the last four or five years, he believed, insisted on the necessity for a valuation. He hoped the Secretary of State for the Home Department would carry into effect the wishes of the conductors of those societies in that regard by introducing a Bill to require that such returns should be sent, and that such valuations should be made. It was too much the fashion of writers to assert that all Foresters and Odd Fellow Societies were insolvent. Mr. Neison, the late actuary, gave his opinion some years ago that the Odd Fellows Societies were insolvent to the extent of £9,000,000; but his son, Mr. Neison, actuary, now estimated their liabilities at £2,000,000, and stated that the bulk of that amount was due from the Odd Fellows Societies in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and Cheshire. With the exception of these four counties, Mr. Neison believed that the Odd Fellows Friendly Societies by means of increased payments might be placed on a sound basis. He (Mr. Richards) was confident that by the aid of proper legislation and the enlightened management of the gentlemen who were at the head of them, these societies, instead of being insolvent, would become one of the great institutions of this country. A great deal of laughter was frequently occasioned by the regalia and processions of Odd Fellows Societies. It must not be supposed that all who joined those societies approved of all they did. At one of the late gatherings of Odd Fellows Societies, one of their leading men, Mr. Fletcher, said that during the twenty-five years he had been connected with them he had not expended 1d. in decorating himself for a procession, and he hoped the time would come when the Odd Fellows Societies would sweep away from themselves that which other people looked upon as humbug. Again, on the question of remunerating the landlord for the hire of a lodge-room by purchasing beer instead of paying in cash, Mr. Kennedy, of Dublin, lately addressed the Foresters in indignant terms against that practice, and stated that, in Ireland, no court would dare to have beer on the council table, much less to enter in their accounts a charge for the payment of it, and he trusted that this improvement would soon extend to all parts of England. These were the opinions expressed by members of those societies. He (Mr. Richards) hoped that the societies would, ere long, clear themselves of these abuses, and take up the position which really belonged to them—that of being the great insurance societies of the working classes. It might be said that it would be much the readier way for working men to go to an insurance office at once. But that was not his view of the matter. He thought it a matter of great importance that they should themselves have a share in the management of their own business. He believed that it was just that feature in these societies which had constituted a great element in their success, and which gave them a special value. It made them, in fact, a great means of teaching the working classes the duties of citizenship, and he believed that the future of this country would be a great deal better than its past, by the education which a great many men received in the Odd Fellows and societies of that description. As an honorary member of one of them he might state that the order and decorum with which their meetings were conducted, equalled the order and decorum in that House. Every member who entered the room had to make the same acknowledgment of the authority in the chair as was made by Members entering that House. There was no swearing, and neither political nor religious questions were allowed to be introduced. He called upon the Secretary of State for the Home Department to assist these men in making their savings safe. He wished to be informed whether the Government were prepared to legislate on this subject, and if not, whether they would assent to a Committee of Inquiry, or the ap- pointment of a Commission for the purpose of obtaining further information as to Odd Fellows and Foresters, and more particularly with respect to Burial Societies?


said, that for the last twenty years, with the assistance, and under the guidance of Mr. Sotheron Estcourt, he had taken a deep interest in this question. While agreeing with most of what had just fallen from his hon. Friend (Mr. Richards), he could not quite coincide in the opinion that the existing evils were all susceptible of an easy and immediate remedy by legislation. He looked with satisfaction on the great progress that had been made by Friendly Societies of late years. A very startling attack had been made on the solvency of the Odd Fellows some twenty-two or twenty-three years ago, which had very much to do with the reform of that body; and it was greatly to the credit of the working-men that, in spite of evil report, they had gone resolutely on until they had reached a position in which they were trusted and perfectly solvent. He looked upon these institutions as splendid examples of the foresight and self-denial of the better members of the working classes; and if hon. Gentlemen had followed the efforts of those men they would have been sensible of what an up-hill fight they had to make in order to reach that position, and how they had gone on year by year endeavouring to improve those with whom they were associated. He did not deny that there might be a case for legislative action, but with respect to the great societies, he would say lot them minimize their legislation. The Committee which sat upon the subject of Friendly Societies had, in the first instance, thought it would be possible to apply stringent remedies to the abuses which were formerly so rife; hut further consideration had satisfied them that it would be better to trust to the good sense of the working men themselves. It had given great satisfaction to Mr. Sotheron Estcourt himself, and other friends of the societies, to find that the men who belonged to them had responded so completely to the confidence that had been placed in them. There was nothing that the great clubs more dreaded than that this feeling of confidence should be broken into by any interference. They were, and would be quite satisfied with the law as it stood, though there might be some little points of detail which might call for a slight remedy. The question of Burial Societies, however, stood on a totally different footing. They speculated in the most cruel manner on the affection, grief, and ignorance of poor people, whom they induced to make great sacrifices, and whose money they took, and then when the time for meeting the claim came they would say they could only give this or that small sum, and the poor people in the time of their distress had often no alternative but to accept what was offered them. He thought his hon. Friend had, at all events, made out a case for inquiry. An immense body of men, many of them the flower of the working-classes, were interested in the question; and there were but few who really knew what great credit was due to these poor people for the self-denial they practised weekly, monthly, and yearly, and what a cruel thing it was for them to find in the end, perhaps after twenty years' subscription, that there was nothing to depend on after all. Great credit was due to the Earl of Lichfield for his attempt at legislation, and if his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department should not hold out a hope that he would himself take up the question, he had no doubt that the Earl of Lichfield would press the matter again in "another place." In the county in which he (Mr. Bonham-Carter) resided a large proportion of the inmates of the poorhouses were persons who had belonged to Friendly Societies that had broken down. What he would urge on the Government was not to allow that the unsound societies, which brought so many to destitution, should go on without legislation. He was not sanguine that the Government could do anything by legislation on the subject this year, or, indeed, that anything could be done upon it at all by way of legislation; but if, by means of inquiry or otherwise, they could help the people to distinguish between good and bad institutions of that kind they would render a most valuable service to the numerous class interested in that important question.


, having long known the earnest and practical interest taken by the hon. Member for Cardiganshire (Mr. Richards) in all that concerned the well-being of the working classes, was not at all surprised at the mastery of his subject which he had exhibited that evening; and he only regretted that there was not a fuller attendance of hon. Members to hear the hon. Gentleman's masterly, though maiden, speech as a Member of Parliament. It was quite true that the importance of that question could hardly be exaggerated. It affected millions of the working class, and affected them in a manner that was of the greatest possible interest to the House and the country. What they wanted to do was to increase the habits of providence and forethought among the working class; and whatever gave them a security that their savings and sacrifices should not be lost to them was a matter of vital importance not only to that class, but to all other classes whose prosperity so greatly depended upon theirs. That being so, Parliament had not been unmindful of its duty; for, during the last thirty or forty years, its attention had been from time to time occupied with the question of these societies, and occupied with it not quite in vain, because, as was clear from what they had heard that night, where the working men availed themselves of the power offered them by law they had succeeded in establishing societies on a firm and solid basis. That had happened as publicity had brought home to them the knowledge of what constituted the security of those societies, and almost every year it was found that that which had been the shame of those societies was gradually disappearing. Larger masses of the working people were seen attaching themselves to the larger and more stable societies, and leaving those small and unsound societies which had wrought so much misery and ruin. Knowing how strong the love of independence and the jealousy of Government interference were among the working classes, he greatly doubted whether Parliament or the State could do much more than it had done in that matter. What had been done had been done mainly in the preparation or sanctioning of rules on the part of the Government, and also—though not very successfully, he admitted—in giving publicity to the accounts of those societies. The hon. Member for Cardiganshire suggested that an actuary for these institutions should be appointed—[Mr. RICHARDS: Sanctioned.]—well, sanctioned by the Government, whose duty it should be to investigate their tables, to examine their accounts, and see from time to time whether they stood on a firm basis. But what the hon. Gentleman recommended the Government to do on behalf of the Friendly Societies it appeared to him they could do without much trouble on their own behalf. The case of the Burial Societies was a very different one, and the hon. Gentleman had been more successful in establishing the existence of a great evil—which, indeed, had been fully and repeatedly explained in Mr. Tidd Pratt's Annual Reports—than in suggesting a suitable remedy. It was said the more ignorant portion of the working classes were the victims of designing men, who went about the country making attractive statements to them, and inducing them to subscribe to societies which were, in fact, bubble institutions; but the best remedy for that seemed to him to be the spread of greater knowledge among the classes immediately concerned. Parliament could hardly be asked to prohibit the existence of those Burial Societies, although some persons thought they contained the germs of much mischief. The fact was there were honest and dishonest societies. He did not know whether means could be found for bringing the societies into a better condition, except by the one simple method of publishing statements of their accounts, and thus enabling the working classes to obtain accurate knowledge of the good and stable societies as distinguished from those which were of a bad and bubble character. He would leave the remedy, therefore, to time and education. But if his hon. Friend were dissatisfied with that and wished, at a proper opportunity, to move for a Committee of Inquiry into that question, no opposition to the Motion would be offered by the Government. The inquiry need not be a long one, and it would be a matter for rejoicing if its result should be to show that Parliament, without infringing on the laws laid down for its general guidance in dealing with such subjects, could do something effectual to save the working classes from the evils to which they were exposed. The hon. Gentleman deserved thanks for the able manner in which he had brought that question before the House, and he hoped that the hon. Gentleman's statement would have due effect upon the working classes, many of whom took a growing interest in the debates of that House, and that they would be led, with time and increasing knowledge, more and more to adopt securer methods of providing against old age and evil days.