HC Deb 02 August 1881 vol 264 cc564-9

rose to call attention to the administration of the Irish Poor Law, more particularly in connection with Belfast workhouse. He reminded the House that he had called attention to the same subject last year, and had given considerable time to the matter; and as the result of his Motion an inquiry had been ordered, but that inquiry had been perfectly useless owing to the manner in which it was conducted. Several independent witnesses were silenced, and one, a Roman Catholic chaplain, who was dismissed for saying that the house was a nest of drunkenness, immorality, and vice was never called at all. He should have thought the proper way to conduct an investigation of that sort would have been to send down to the spot a perfectly independent person to act as Commissioner; but instead of that two Poor Law Inspectors were appointed, who had only recently been on the spot making inquiries, and these persons had exonerated the house from the charges made against it. He had not a word to say against Dr. Mackay, one of the Inspectors referred to, and he must say when the Chief Secretary's attention was called to the matter he at once did his best; but what he did complain of was that the Local Government Board had endeavoured, by every means in its power, to thwart and crush and defeat the inquiry. When he made the original statement he made a number of assertions, giving figures and facts, and no attempt was made by the officials to find out if those figures were correct or not. His statement was reported in The Freeman's Journal; but some of his facts and figures were not given, although he was bound to say that the reports in The Freeman were wonderfully full and accurate considering that they had all to be telegraphed. He had since been supported in his complaint by several of the Guardians of the Union, and had received the warm thanks of a number of the ratepayers. It appeared to be generally admitted that the state of this workhouse was extremely unsatisfactory, and yet the inquiry was allowed to prove abortive. In reference to the specific charges which he had made, the charge of immorality was fully borne out by the facts which had been placed in his hands. There were cases of women who had been in and out of the house 60 or 70 times, and who were simply living upon the ratepayers, whilst they led abandoned lives. In other cases women who remained in the house became mothers under circumstances which showed that immorality prevailed in the workhouse. Touching those serious charges hardly a question was asked at the inquiry except one or two questions put to the officials, who could not be expected to give disinterested evidence. On the 14th of April, 1879, the matron complained that paupers were going about the house in possession of pass keys, and doing what they pleased; but not the slightest heed was paid to that charge at the inquiry. The matron was examined, but the question was not even put to her. Then it was alleged that there was a great deal of drunkenness in the house, and the way in which that was accomplished was that, by a combination, property of the Union was sold and disposed of in various ways—in this case surreptitiously introduced into the house. One of the magistrates at Belfast stated that in 1878 no less than 99 cases of drunkenness were brought before him from the workhouse. Yet there was not the slightest cross-examination on this point at the inquiry, nor any attempt made to account for and explain how that drunkenness took place. Another charge was that the old men in the house were put in the same rooms with young, idle, and evil-disposed vagabonds, who treated them with violence, and robbed them of the few coins that they brought into the house. On many occasions these old men had been subjected to the greatest insolence; but no such case was even alluded to at the inquiry. Of course, he knew that anyone would be resisted by the officials who tried to reform any department, and that was what had been done on the present occasion. The officials had endeavoured to cloak over the misdeeds at the workhouse and the remissness of the chief authorities in Dublin. He hoped that public opinion would rise to the occasion, and that the Chief Secretary would give him some hope that sooner or later, when weightier matters had been disposed of, he would try to reform Irish Poor Law administration. It was quite hopeless to expect any improvement as long as all investigation was to be hushed up and to be set aside. As his Motion was generally directed against the Irish Local Government Board and the administration of workhouses, he would just give another instance of the policy of the Board. Owing, perhaps, to the attention which he had had the honour of exciting with regard to workhouse management, the Limerick Guardians took the matter up very warmly and determined to improve the condition of the children in their workhouse, and they spent a large sum of money in building a new school and decided to place the religious instruction of the children under the supervision of a number of ladies. The Local Government Board were perfectly aware of what was intended from the outset, and gave no sign of interfering with the plans of the Guardians. They waited, in fact, until great expense had been incurred, and then they came down with their obstructive policy and put their foot upon the introduction of these ladies to take care of the school. They put forward the reason that the proposed arrangement would interfere with the religious liberty of the Protestant children in the school. As a matter of fact during three years there was only one Protestant child in the whole school; and, therefore, that objection of the Board was simply frivolous. What would have been said if the managers of a Protestant school had been deprived of these advantages simply because one Catholic child might be affected? The fact was that it was not an honest excuse, but mere hypocrisy on the part of the Local Government Board, who professed to be so anxious with regard to the religious sentiments of a solitary infant in a Roman Catholic school, whilst in other parts of the country where Catholic children were in the majority Protestant teachers were imposed upon them without compunction. He had only to say that there was no Minister before whom he would sooner have the question brought than the Chief Secretary, for he believed that Gentleman was one of the few men who would give his time and attention to so small a matter which was consistent with his humane and kindly career. He trusted before the right hon. Gentleman left his present post, and accepted some other Department, that he would take some decided steps with regard to the subject at issue, and would endeavour to remedy the evils complained of.


said, he thought the hon. Member had rather under-estimated the difficulties which the Local Government Board had to deal with in making the inquiry referred to. He did not understand that the line taken by the Local Government Board was that they would not allow the children in Limerick Institution to be taught by Sisters of Mercy. What was objected to, as he understood it, was that the Sisters of Mercy should be appointed by an extraneous authority, and the matter had since been settled on the basis that the Sisters of Mercy should be appointed by the Board of Guardians, subject to the veto of the Local Government Board. That was acknowledged by almost everybody to be fair; and, therefore, he did not think the hon. Member was justified in blaming the Local Government Board. With regard to the workhouses, if the hon. Member meant to have brought the subject forward he ought to have put the matter on the Notice Paper, and then he (Mr. W. E. Forster) would have been aware of the intention, and would have been able to look into the subject. Instead of that what appeared on the Notice Paper was simply that the hon. Member intended to call attention to the administration of the Irish Poor Law. With regard to the inquiry referred to, he must say that he had read the Report which was drawn up on the subject, and he must say he thought it was drawn up very fairly, and that the inquiry appeared to have been conducted in a proper manner. The Local Government Board sent down two most able men—Mr. Robinson and Dr. Mackay—and full notice was given of the inquiry. Therefore, those who sympathized with the hon. Member ought surely to have come before the Commission, and given evidence in support of his case. All he could say with regard to the statements made by the hon. Gentleman was that he hoped they would be fully reported somewhere, as some of them were much stronger than he had seen elsewhere, and he thought having been made in that public way they did require to be again considered. But when the hon. Member said that the Local Government Board ought to have sent down perfectly independent persons to make inquiry, he forgot that the case was one in which the action of the persons connected with the Local Government Board was complained of; and if the Board was worth anything at all it should be able to inquire into the fitness of the persons connected with it. He did not find that in Belfast there was any strong opinion in regard to the officials referred to, nor did he find that the hon. Member's opinions were strongly sympathized with in Belfast itself. With regard to sending down Inspectors to make the inquiry, it must not be forgotten that those persons under the statute had power to take evidence on oath, which other persons had not; and he must say, in justice to Mr. Robinson, that it would be impossible to find a gentleman more thoroughly impartial than he was, for he had no bias one way or other. On looking at the evidence he found Mr. Smith, the chaplain, stated that he was in and out of the workhouse daily, and he observed no improper conduct, or immoral or irregular association. It appeared that the evidence quite justified the finding of the Inspectors, who by no means wished to whitewash the Guardians, or anything like it. They also expressed their dissatisfaction with the relieving officer. After all it was a sort of trial, and it often occurred that when there had been a trial one side was not satisfied with the verdict.


said, he thought in such a case it would be very difficult for a Commission to get at the facts of the case, as they would not know what question to ask, and how they were to find out what it was desirable to know. Knowing something of these matters, he was clearly of opinion that a great deal of mischief arose in such cases from the action of the ex officio Guardians. He contended that the ratepayers should select persons to represent them, while ex officio Guardians should not be allowed on any Board. In his own county (Cavan) he remembered a case where a coal contractor was convicted of a gross fraud in connection with his dealings with the workhouse. An inquiry was ordered; but the ex officio Guardians taking his part prevented his punishment. He thought such proceedings ought to be put a stop to.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.