HC Deb 10 August 1877 vol 236 cc755-60

rose to call attention to the condition and state of the Dwellings of the Agricultural Labourers in Ireland, and the obstruction to and difficulties placed in the way of carrying out loans for purposes authorized by the Legislature by the Board of Public Works, Ireland. The hon. Member read extracts from evidence given by Mr. William O'Reilly, father of the hon. Member for Longford, describing the wretched dwellings of the labourers in the county of Louth, from that of Mr. Smith as to those residing in the county of Limerick, where he alleged no people in the world were treated with greater severity, and of Mr. Kinkaird, an extensive land agent, to the same effect. He reminded the House that the Devon Commission sat in 1843, and examined 200 witnesses; that that Commission described the agricultural labourers as "badly fed, badly clothed, and badly housed," and yet nothing was done to effect an improvement from that hour to the present. The House had allowed 16 years to elapse —namely, between 1844 and 1860—before they took any action on the Report of the Devon Commission. They shortly afterwards, by the hands of Sir William Somerville, Chief Secretary for Ireland, brought in a Bill, and passed an Act by which grants might be made to Irish landlords for the improvement of the labourers' dwellings on their properties; but that concession was hampered with so many restrictions by the Board of Works in Ireland that the Act virtually became a dead letter. After the passing of that Act, Mr. Henry Coulter, who was regarded as an un-impeached and an unimpeachable authority, was sent as a special commissioner for Saunders's News Letter, a Conservative journal, and one of the oldest in the United Kingdom, to investigate the whole subject, and he said that he never saw more wretched, miserable hovels; that the windows were generally without glass, but stuffed with straw, and on the whole constituted a picture of the utmost wretchedness and poverty. So things remained until the introduction of the Land Act in 1870, into which a clause was introduced which would have the effect of giving some relief, but it was struck out by the House of Lords. The then Chief Secretary for Ireland, now Lord Carlingford, promised to bring in a Bill during the following Session to remedy the evil thus created, but he was removed to another office, and succeeded by the noble Marquess now the Leader of the Opposition. In 1872 that noble Lord promised to bring in a Bill to improve the Labourers' Dwellings in Ireland, but he did not do so. The hon. Member continued to read numerous extracts to show that there was a large class of persons in Ireland who were badly fed, clothed, and housed, and he complained that, notwithstanding the numerous promises which successive Go- vernments had made on the subject, no legislative steps had been taken to improve the miserable condition of those unfortunate people. One writer—a Government official—said the habitations —he could not call them houses—were a disgrace to Christianity and a civilized community; and the whole of the evidence showed that the condition of the agricultural labourers was deteriorating, instead of improving, and this was due to a great entent to the miserable cabins in which they had to live. In answer to the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt), the Chief Secretary for Ireland last Session made a statement which led many hon. Members to believe that steps would be taken to remedy the state of the dwellings, but the condition of those habitations were as bad now as at the date when the Report of the Devon Commission was made. Nothing would give so much satisfaction in Ireland as the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the condition of labourers' dwellings, and to devise a remedy on the subject, and he hoped the Chief Secretary for Ireland would not object to the issue of such a Commission.


admitted the great importance of the subject which the hon. Member for Dundalk (Mr. Callan) had brought under the attention of the House; but he was sure that hon. Member would himself be prepared to admit its difficulties, for he had made no suggestion for improving the present system, or removing the evils of which he complained. The condition of labourers' dwellings in Ireland was, no doubt, far from satisfactory. He (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) was, however, justified in repeating the observations he made last year, that during the last few years there had. been improvements in Ireland as in other parts of the Kingdom. In many parts of the country, as he had himself seen, mud huts had been replaced by comfortable cottages, built not merely for ornamental lodges or model farms, but for really practical purposes. The hon. Member had suggested that a Royal Commission should be appointed to inquire into the subject, or that the Commission upon the amalgamation of Unions and Workhouses should be empowered to extend the scope of their inquiry in this direction; but there had already been endless inquiries into the condition of labourers' dwellings by persons in various positions, and the hon. Member had quoted from the Reports of Commissioners and Inspectors of various dates. He was not of opinion that the result of any such inquiry as that proposed would supply any more information than had been collected, or would be likely to lead to any valuable suggestions. There were two modes in which at present they endeavoured to promote the erection or improvement of labourers' dwellings in Ireland. In the first place, they did so under the Sanitary Laws. The Public Health Acts had been referred to, and, as the House knew, he had proposed the consolidation of these Acts, adding, at the same time, some fresh provisions, to vest in local authorities in rural districts powers, with regard to houses unfit for human habitation, now exercised by town authorities. He was sorry to say that he had not been successful in carrying this measure through; but no facts had been brought under his notice to show that the power of the town authorities in this matter had been unfairly exercised. In some instances, perhaps, they had not interfered where they might have done so with benefit; and the evidence lately given before the Local Government and Taxation in Ireland Committee caused him to believe that if the powers vested in the sanitary authorities were more exercised great advantage would be conferred not only in respect of labourers' dwellings, but also of the general health of the localities. The other means by which Parliament had endeavoured to promote improvement was by an Act which applied to Ireland alone, and not to England and Scotland. By that Act landlords could obtain loans on favourable terms for the erection of labourers' dwellings. These loans were repayable in 22 years by an annual payment of 6½ per cent. The hon. Member for Dundalk said that that Act had failed, and he (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach) agreed it had not been so successful as might be desired, but still it had been utilized to a great extent. The last Report of the Board of Works gave the full number of these loans sanctioned since the passing of the Act as 345, the sum lent being £197,090. That was not a very large total amount; but it was of importance to the subject with which they were dealing, to point out that during the last year £32,100 had been granted out of the total, which was a marked progress as compared with former years. The hon. Member had spoken of obstacles thrown in the way of loans by the Board of Works. If their precise character were brought under the notice of the Government, inquiry should be made into them, for he was anxious to make the Act as valuable as possible. His hon. Friend, who had lately been promoted to a high post (Mr. W. H. Smith), undertook that an inquiry should be directed into the organization and working of the Board of Works; and, of course, it would come within the scope of that inquiry to ascertain in what way the powers of the Board of Works under the Artizans and Labourers' Dwellings Acts had been exercised. He felt sure that any difficulties the hon. Member for Dundalk brought under notice, or any change that could be made consistently with security for the erection of proper dwellings and the repayment of the loans, would be considered. He did not see in what other way, besides these two methods to which he had referred, the House could promote the erection of labourers' dwellings in Ireland. It could do no more than stimulate and assist that private action to which the subject must mainly be left, and enable the local authorities to prohibit the use of bad dwellings. It was not alone in Ireland, but throughout the United Kingdom, that they were met in this matter by the great practical difficulty that the rent which labourers could afford to pay would not cover the cost of erecting good cottages. To meet the difficulty, the Act was passed to enable landlords to build cottages more cheaply, and it did meet the difficulty to some extent. More than that Government could not do; but if the hon. Member would bring to his notice the precise nature of the obstacles alluded to, he would do all in his power to promote the proper action of the law.


said, that the Sanitary Acts had been to a great degree inoperative, principally because when dwellings were demolished for sanitary purposes the owners did not replace them by others. As the Chief Secretary desired suggestions, he would propose that in any amendment of the Sanitary Laws the local authority should have the authority to erect a new dwelling when an old one was condemned and demolished. He should say that, on the whole, he was satisfied with the assurance that a Committee of the Board of Works would go into the question of labourers' dwellings.