HC Deb 07 July 1887 vol 317 cc152-74

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. A. J. Balfour.)

MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

Sir, although this Bill appears, at first sight, of but small importance, it is one, having regard to the district with which it deals, of the greatest importance. In the first place, it is of the deepest consequence, because it deals with a problem which has been admitted by students of Irish affairs to be one of a most perplexing character. Again, it is an important measure, because it is entirely revolutionary and unprecedented in its proposals; and I venture to say, although I do not intend, for reasons which I shall lay before the House, to offer any opposition to the second reading of the Bill, that the Government are entering on a course the evils of which it would be impossible to exaggerate. The Bill proposes to take over responsibility from the elected Guardians of the Poor in Ireland and cast it upon the shoulders of the Executive Government—the responsibility for the greatest and most terrible mass of festering poverty that ever existed in Ireland. I think it is only fair that we should warn the Executive in Ireland of that; and in the future, if this Bill passes, or, at any rate, until we get Home Rule for Ireland, which will not be long, they will have entire responsibility for the relief of the poor in this immense district, the population of which is stated at 156,000 persons. I wish to refer briefly to the details of the measure before I sit down; but at the outset I shall draw attention to some of the facts which are set forth in a Memorandum which has been circulated, together with the Bill; and with regard to this Memorandum I must say that, although it seems to me irregular, I do not complain, seeing that a fair opportunity has been given of discussing the measure. But I do say that it was a great bit of sharp practice to get a long start of Members interested in the district by means of a statement in detail deeply affecting the matter of argument, seeing that for several days we should have no opportunity of replying. I am bound to say that the Chief Secretary for Ireland (Mr. A. J. Balfour) has acted fairly in giving us a reasonable opportunity for considering this Bill. Here you have a district including five Unions in the counties of Galway and Clare, with a population of 156,000 persons, and which district includes in its area I think all, or nearly all, of what are known as the poorest districts in Ireland. We have had the admission that from 1879 to 1885 there has been expended an enormous sum of money in free grants and loans which have not been repaid, and in charitable donations within the district. The total amount of this is £317,000, all of which came from outside the district—largely from the public funds voted by this House, and, as I have said, charitable funds, which amounted to no less than £85,000. We have had the admission of the Chief Secretary that this money was expended in order to keep the population alive, and there has been no allegation of abuse or misapplication of the money, except with regard to one portion of it. But, notwithstanding all this, from the very places where the poverty is the deepest large sums for rent have been sent over to this country. I think we are entitled to ask on what grounds of public expediency the Chief Secretary for Ireland seeks to defend this fact which cannot be got over—that in this comparatively small population, and with this enormous expenditure from public and charitable funds for the sole purpose of enabling people to keep body and soul together, these rents have been levied in the district by horse, foot, and artillery. But that is not the whole of my charge. What are the facts with regard to that district? I can say, from my own knowledge of the district, that the land there is the property of landlords who never set foot in the district, but live in this country. During the time of the distribution of the money voted to maintain their tenants the landlords deserted their duties, and never attended on the Boards of Guardians, of which they were members ex officio, and we have it stated in the Blue Book that during the worst periods the Boards had had very small assistance from ex officio members, whose presence might have been expected. The man who owns the largest part of the district is Lord Dillon, who never set foot there during the time when there were large sums spent in keeping his wretched tenantry from starvation, but who occupied himself in issuing processes and civil bills against them. The very money that was intended for the relief of the people was used for issuing processes for payment of rent. I say that the Executive of Ireland, not having, it would seem, sufficient on hand, are now taking over the whole responsibility of this poverty-stricken population, who are sinking day by day into further misery; and you are I taking all that upon your shoulders, knowing that you have to deal with a body of men who are proved by the Report in that Blue Book to be dead to every duty which a landlord ought to acknowledge. Allow me to ask you, Sir, this—there is one provision in this Bill which seems to me, in view of the facts in the Blue Book, little short of a mockery, and I would ask you whether, in your opinion, it is not a mockery? It is said that these Commissions to be appointed by the Lord Lieutenant are to take over all the duties of Boards of Guardians, and to take over none of their debts, which are to be left behind—to take over all their duties and all their means of paying their debts, but none of their debts. There is a provision from which the creditors of the Unions will, I should think, take slight comfort—namely, a provision to the effect that everything over and above the rate to be levied, which may be necessary for the support of the poor, will be handed back to the old Boards of Guardians for the purpose of paying their debts. Well, what is that likely to amount to? Well, I confess I would not offer a halfpenny in the pound for the whole of that amount. I believe that in many of these electoral divisions, that, so far from having any surplus when the wants of the poor have been supplied, you will meet with a deficit. You do not know as I do the miserable condition of these people—you do not know what position you are putting the Executive in. I have the keenest desire to avoid parading the miseries of our people before this House; but when you and the Executive are about to place yourselves in the position of the Poor Law Guardians in Ireland, I warn you that it will be impossible for us in the future to avoid criticizing your conduct, and placing before Parliament and the country the miserable condition of the people—for which condition you will then be responsible. So great is the normal poverty of the people that the facts we shall be able to bring before this House, which, will be beyond question, and which the Executive will be bound to admit, will make even you Conservatives consent to a scale of relief under this Bill, such as will compel the production of a Budget for these distressed Unions in which you will not have a surplus, but the very reverse of a surplus. The consequences of that will be that, instead of saving money by this proposed scheme, you will plunge the Executive of Ireland into new difficulties. We have evidence here of the gross maladministration of the £20,000 of the Irish Church money, which was sanctioned by Parliament last year for use in outdoor relief. I do not stand here to defend the action of these Guardians at all. On the contrary, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle (Mr. John Morley) will remember in connection with that matter that, though it was an unpopular rôle to play before my own constituency, I stood up here, and warned him against giving large grants to the Poor Law Guardians without check and control. So strong was the view I took on that matter that I urged on the right hon. Gentleman that the Executive Government in Ireland, in which I then had the most absolute confidence, Lord Aberdeen being then Lord Lieutenant, should have the administration of this money, and that where they thought fit they should administer it by Inspectors, and not by Poor Law Guardians, or that where they did administer it through the Poor Law Guardians it should be under the immediate control of Inspectors. What has occurred since has fully borne out the correctness of my view. The principle I had in view was that public money granted to the Poor Law Guardians was a dangerous gift, and that where you made a free gift to an electoral body like the Poor Law Guardians, the Executive Government should insist upon the most rigorous control over the administration of the money. I regret that there was not that rigorous control over the spending of the money granted by Parliament last year, because occurrences have taken place which are most painful to everyone interested in the honour of those localities. I would invite the attention of those who wish to understand this matter to the Blue Book. What are the facts? Why, we have it related here that the Guardians offered to the people in Swinford, and some of the surrounding districts, occupation on the relief works at 1s. a-day, and here are the statements of the people who were examined—that so great was the rush to the relief works to earn this 1s. a-day, that almost the entire population was put on them. Is it not an awful state of things to see such an offer as this drawing the whole population of the place—and it must be borne in mind that it was not for the whole of the week, but only for three or four days in the week that this money was given. That is the actual state of things—that an offer was made of 1s. a-day, and four-fifths of the population rushed and struggled to get it. That is a terrible fact, and one that the Government should take into consideration before they proceed with this proposal. There are two other facts which are disclosed in the Blue Book to which I must direct attention. Some time ago I directed attention to the fact which is too much lost sight of, but which is in reality most appalling; and it is that in Ireland, while the population of the whole country has decreased since 1841 from about 8,000,000 to under 5,000,000, the population of the poorest districts, of the bogs and hill-sides, and the congested districts of the West, show a largely increased population. I recollect on one occasion being struck by these facts on a rough observation of these Western districts in the course of my own experience of them. I went into particulars, and took up the matter barony by barony, and electoral division by electoral division, and in Connaught I found that in direct ratio the baronies which showed good soil and productive capabilities were thinly populated, while those districts where the land was barren and of little value were thickly populated, and in those districts the population is multiplying and increasing to this day. Now, is that not a terrible state of things? Has the right hon. Gentleman opposite really considered what is before him? I believe that the fact, once mastered and admitted, is a frightful condemnation of the system which has prevailed in Ireland during the last 40 years, or, I may say, the last 100 years. I believe that that problem, terrible as it is, would take even those most interested in the welfare of Ireland not one, or two, or three years, but 10 or 12 years of patient and long-suffering endeavour to remedy. The right hon. Gentleman opposite may ask me what remedy I propose. Well, Sir, the answer I make is this. I, least of all the Irish Representatives, have never said any thing to minimize or make little of that problem. I have been brought face to face with it from childhood, and I know the gravity of it; and if to-morrow we Irish Members had to take upon ourselves the responsibility of dealing with it, we should do so with the full knowledge of the difficulties of the case, but we should be perfectly prepared to accept the responsibility, and we should find a remedy with great patience. But I tell you frankly that I believe it is impossible for anybody who does not enjoy the love and confidence of the Irish people to touch that problem without making matters ten times worse than they are at present. The first step you have got to take, before you commence to deal with a congested district, is to open the hearts of the people to you. Until you do that—while you come to the people as an enemy—every time you approach them you will be farther away than ever from the successful dealing with a problem which, I admit, will task the patience and experience and skill of even an Irish Government. The Chief Secretary knows very well the figures with regard to the increases and decreases which are occurring in connection with our population. But the facts are so extraordinary with reference to some of the poorest districts that I will just mention one or two of them. Here is an example of the horrible state of things which exists in some of the most wretched districts—an example of the increase of population where the valuation is frightfully low. In Lettermore, in the Oughterard Union, the population in 1841 was 1,395, and in 1881 it was 1,643; and what, do you think, is the valuation per head? Why, only 5s. 3d. In Kilcommin the population in 1841 was 340, and in 1881 was 335, while the valuation was 9s. 9d.; and in another village in the Swinford district the population in 1841 was 2,136, while it is now 2,635, or an increase of 500, and the valuation is 5s. 7d. I know the last place of which I have spoken very well. It is on Lord Dillon's estate. Lord Dillon owns the entire electoral division. Every inch of his estate has increased in population. Why is that? Why, for the very reason that the land is valueless, absolutely valueless. The land is barren and rocky—indeed, it was a forest in the days of the grandfathers of the people who occupy it now. It has been reclaimed by the children—the sons and daughters of the tenantry who are gone, reared up in mud cabins, with no kind of decency—I do not mean with no idea of decency, for these poor people have a sense of decency—but with little possible application of what are called the decencies of civilized life, or little chance of carrying them out. The people herd together in these cabins. The men marry and begin life with no more capital than seven or eight acres of bog or mountain side. They will go and cultivate land which anyone here would call absolutely worthless. They will drag some sort of produce from that, and at once have the rent raised. That is the way the Dillon estate has increased. That has not been the system adopted where the land is valuable. Where the land was valuable without the people, there the people have had to go; but where the land has been valueless without the people, there the people have been preserved, and for generations have been reared up for the purpose of cultivating these barren tracts. The people have been willing to go into these districts of bog and mountain, and live as no Christian ought to be called upon to live; and instead of paying 1s. an acre—and no Englishman would be content to pay even that for this land—they have to pay £1 1s. an acre. That, however, is the system you will have to contend with in these Unions. You will have to contend with a frightful mass of poverty. You will have to contend with the burden of a population which could not live for a single year without charitable assistance from this country and remittances from America. You are going to enable the landlords to obtain their rents, while the British Exchequer is to feed the people. I warn the Executive that we will take every opportunity of pointing out to the people of England what they are doing; and if we find that in any case they refuse to relieve the people that are starving, we shall lose no opportunity of attacking the Executive for such refusal, more especially if, while the people are wanting food, large bodies of police are moved into the districts to remove them for inability to pay their rents, and it will remain for the Executive Government of this country to say, if they pass this Bill, and go down and propose a grant in aid for these Unions next year, that they are going to feed Lord Dillon's tenants, in order that they may be able to pay his rents. I mean Lord Dillon or any other landlord. I do not draw attention to Lord Dillon because he is by any means the worst of these landlords. Some of these landlords receive three times the amount of rent that Lord Dillon does. But I warn the Government that they will be placed in that odious position if they pass this Bill—that they will be feeding in the five Unions under consideration 156,000 persons, amongst whom, in little more than six years, a sum exceeding £317,000 has been spent in order that the landlords may have some means of squeezing money out of their tenants. I will only devote a few minutes to criticism of the provisions of the Bill. This measure proposes to do what no Bill ever proposed to do before—namely, to set up two Commissioners, who will inevitably, in a short space of time, entirely supersede the Boards of Guardians; and they are to have the power of appointing the officers that used to be under the Boards of Guardians. They will have power to appoint the dispensary doctors and all officers that were under the Boards of Guardians, which seems to me to be a monstrous thing to propose to do. It is proposed that they should take over all the debts due to the Boards of Guardians, but none of the debts owing by the Boards of Guardians. I await with some surprise to hear what defence the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary can make for this proposal, for it seems to me the most extraordinary proposal ever made by a Government. All the claims that the Board of Guardians have against the ratepayers are to be taken over, and the Commissioners are to have the fullest powers to recover such claims. I put it to the Chief Secretary—has he considered whether or not he is prepared to defend this principle? I do not speak here in the interests of the creditors or the Boards of Guardians, because I think the banks in Ireland which have allowed the Boards of Guardians to overdraw their accounts, as I am told they have done in Swinford, have only themselves to blame. These banks are now to be told that the outstanding estates of the Boards of Guardians are to be seized on by a Body against whom they are to have no claim whatever, and that the old Body, on whose credit they have made their advances, is to be extinguished. They are to be told to remain dumb under these circumstances; and I must say that that proposal seems to me most extraordinary. What comfort do they get for that? At the end of the 7th section they will find the following provision:— Nothing contained in this section shall prejudice any remedy against the Board of Guardians for enforcing payment of money due to him which a creditor of the Board of Guardians would have had if this Act had not been passed. Surely the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary has put in this provision as a joke. Having carefully provided that every source from which the Board of Guardians could possibly get a shilling is to be impounded by the new Commissioners, the right hon. Gentleman provides that no creditor shall be prejudiced from enforcing payment from the Board of Guardians in the manner which would have been open to him if the Act had not been passed. When advances are made, they are made on the faith of the Guardians. What does the Bill propose? It proposes to cut off all remedy for the creditors, and impound all the rates and transfer them to the new Body, which is to go scot-free. I do not stand here on behalf of the creditors, but I do consider it would be monstrous if banks, for instance, were to lose the money they have advanced. So much for that part of the Bill. The Bill goes on to provide— If any union named in the Schedule to this Act is dissolved, or the limits thereof are altered, so that such union becomes wholly of partially amalgamated with some other union, the Treasury may, on the recommendation of the Local Government Board, make, out of moneys to be provided by Parliament, a free grant of such amount as the Treasury may determine to the Board of Guardians or to the Commissioners of the dissolved or altered union, to be applied by them in discharge or reduction of the debts affecting the union, or such parts of the union as are amalgamated with some other union. This, also, seems to me to be a rather unjust Proviso—it seems to discriminate unfairly between the unions which are steeped in poverty. And now, Sir, I wish to say a word on the question of outstanding rates, because what do we find in these Unions? We find that the outstanding rates bear a very large proportion to the rates that are collected, particularly in the Swinford Union. A most remarkable fact conies out with regard to the outstanding rates. I have pointed out that ex officio Guardians neglect their duties, because they give no assistance in distributing relief or in checking extravagance. Take the case of the Swinford Union. In that Union there is a system of gross swindling practised on occupiers under £4; 73 per cent of all the rates are paid, or are payable, by the rated occupiers. What do we find as to the condition of the outstanding rates? Why, that 49 percent of the uncollected rates are credited to the rated occupiers, while the lessors, I who have only to pay 26 per cent, have 5 per cent of their rates unpaid. We really find that the poor unfortunate tenants of this district have paid their rates nearly four times as well as the landlords. The same condition of things prevails in all the other distressed Unions—in Belmullet, in Clifton, in Oughterard, and in Westport. Under these circumstances, the question I want to put to the Chief Secretary is—If this Bill is passed, will he give a pledge to the House that he will honestly administer the Bill and make the landlords pay their rates, and also that he will break up the company system, and direct the Committees, or introduce a short measure for the purpose of directing them, to levy half the rates upon the landlords where the holdings are under £4. I do not oppose the second reading; but the least I and my Colleagues are entitled to ask is that the landlords should be made to pay their honest share of the poor rates.


Perhaps it would be con- venient I should follow the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) at once. With very much of what he has said I agree and sympathize. He has a full sense of the extreme gravity of the situation of the parts of Ireland dealt with by the Bill, and he has expressed, in terms I think not too strong, the enormous task laid before this House, or any House which has to deal with this question. I deeply regret the hon. Gentleman could not refrain, even on this question, from any dragging in of subjects of Party controversy. It seems to me unnecessary that he should take this opportunity of making a speech of a Party character against the landlords, for, after all, the hon. Gentleman must know perfectly well that the question before us is not in any sense a question of rent. He would be the first to acknowledge that if rent were abolished over the whole of these Unions, the gravity of the problem we have to deal with would not be less than it is now.


Much less; we should have £100,000 a-year less to pay.


I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. The question we have to meet is one of population. He gave figures which I must confess are worse than mine. In the Belmullet Union the valuation of the land per head of the population is 13s. 2d., in the Clifton Union 14s. 6d., in the Oughterard Union 14s. 6d., and in the Swinford Union 16s. 2d. Everyone who has studied the Land Question in congested districts must know that where the valuation of the land per head of the population is over 10s., the situation is appalling. The real difficulty of the situation is the congestion of the population. Lord Dillon's property is a case in point. The hon. Gentleman dwelt in glowing and eloquent terms upon the misery of the tenants. I am not aware he has exaggerated the misery; but how has that misery come about? Because Lord Dillon or his predecessors did not use their influence in the discouragement, but rather in the encouragement, of the settlement of population. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the weight of responsibility resting upon them is heavy; but it is impossible to acquit the population itself. I do not wish to discuss the question from a Party point of view at all. I wish for the moment to forget Party differences. I say that the difficulty arises from the increase of population; and the landlord who permits this increase is certainly to blame. But if there were no landlords, if the one reason why this population has gone on increasing is because landlords did not exercise a proper influence, will you remove the evil if you remove the landlords? It appears to me that you will remove one check which hitherto has existed in congested districts, one piece of machinery by which some check has been put upon the appalling pressure of the population upon the means of subsistence. Then, Sir, the hon. Gentleman said—Is it not a monstrous thing to exact rents from these people who are so poor already? I mean to pass no judgment of any sort or kind upon the particular landlords concerned; but it is perfectly obvious to the House that, be the land worth what you like, if the population living on that land increases beyond a certain point the people will be reduced to almost abject poverty. Yet the landlord ought not to be deprived of the real value of the land.


It has no value at all.


The hon. Gentleman can hardly take that view, because what is the only conclusion to be drawn from it? If it be true that the land is wholly worthless the whole population ought at once to be deported. [Cries of "Oh, oh !"] I am not proposing it; I am merely arguing that that is the necessary and logical conclusion from the observations of the hon. Gentleman. Then, Sir, the hon. Gentleman went on to describe the enormous responsibility which would be thrown on the Executive by the Bill before the House. I grant that the weight of the responsibility will be great; but I ask the hon. Gentleman what is the alternative he proposes? At one part of his speech I thought he was coming to the point; I thought he was going to make some suggestion which would enable me to dispense with, the Bill and substitute a better proposal. He said that when Ireland gets Home Rule an Irish Parliament will, by some means at present undefined, be able to solve the problem, the extreme difficulty of which he with his great knowledge of the subject fully admits. But in the meanwhile Home Rule is not granted, and the crisis we have to deal with is upon us. It must be dealt with within the next month; and if the hon. Gentleman objects to my proposal, I ask him what scheme he is prepared to substitute? I have given this subject most anxious thought, and I hope he will believe me when I say I have approached it with a desire to benefit the population. Of course, we might have dealt with the question in other ways. If we had appointed Vice Guardians a great many evils would have arisen. We might continue the existing Guardians; but that would hardly receive the support of the hon. Gentleman, considering the strong language he has used about the existing Guardians. He has given the fullest assent to the heavy indictment brought against the present Guardians.


I did not give the fullest assent to the heavy indictment brought against them in the Report; but I said I was prepared to admit that the gravest abuses had occurred under the circumstances of extreme poverty.


I will not quarrel about words. He thinks the Guardians have been guilty in the past, and he would not like to entrust to them the carrying out of any new policy. But some new policy is required, if this House desires to give relief at all. Of course, we might do nothing. If we did nothing, what would happen would be this—some creditor of the existing Guardians would distrain upon the workhouse furniture, and all credit from the merchants who now supply the workhouse with food would stop. The poor, under such circumstances, would most undoubtedly starve. I have now put before the House all the difficulties of the case. Now, what is the chief objection which the hon. Gentleman raises? He especially dealt with the case of arrears. My view with regard to that question I can very shortly state to the House. I can see that the finances of the United Kingdom are in no sense pledged to support the poor of any locality or to liquidate the debts of any locality; but I do hold that the first charge upon the rates of any locality is the support of the poor. That being an absolute first charge, the creditors have no right to that part of the assets. Everything else is given under this Bill. Everything that is required for the support of the poor goes, under my Bill, to the poor. Everything which is not required to support the poor goes to the creditors. I perfectly admit that the tradesmen will suffer. They will suffer, as all creditors suffer who lean to insolvent debtors. I do not think this House can for one moment admit that it is the duty of the Government to liquidate the debts of a Union. Such a duty cannot be undertaken by the Government without involving the most serious consequences in the future, and without encouraging every Board of Guardians to plunge as deeply as possible into debt in the hope that the British Parliament will extricate them. I hope I have in no controversial spirit dealt with the main points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I earnestly appeal to the House to pass the Bill as quickly as possible. The crisis is an imminent one. If the Government are not empowered by this Bill to do something to support the poor of these districts, and empowered soon, it may be that great and avoidable suffering will be inflicted upon a population which suffer, I am sorry to say, already too much from the circumstances in which they are placed.


I am extremely well acquainted with some of these Unions—namely, the Galway Union and the Unions of Westport and Belmullet. With regard to Swinford, I know nothing of it personally; but I believe that it is the most exceptional Union in Ireland, and is well represented by my hon. Friend the Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon). I totally dissent from the principle of the Bill with regard to four of the Unions. These are situated on beautiful bays; there is an immense quantity of fish on the coast, and I think it is the fault of the Imperial Government that these natural resources have not been developed. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland laid it down that these Unions have no claim on the British taxpayer; but I contend that they have, because they contribute a considerable sum to the British Exchequer. You will find that the consumption of taxable articles in these Unions is the same as in the Unions in any other part of Ireland; and, consequently, if you spent a small portion of the taxes levied in the Kingdom by direct taxation in developing their natural resources, these Unions would be able to take care of themselves. I have been Chairman of the Board in one of these Unions; I know the exigencies of the district perfectly well, and I say that if you had done there what you have in India and elsewhere you could have altered the position of the district entirely. I say the population there could exist if you would explore the fisheries and encourage railway enterprise. There are several good points in the Bill; but what I want is that you should take over these districts, as we should do if we had Home Rule in Ireland, and then, I believe, you could greatly improve their condition. With regard to the creditors of the Unions, I protest against the action of the Government, which will have the effect of injuring the credit of the Unions. I am glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that the officers will be paid by the Government, because to attempt to levy their pay in the district would be a most improper thing; but I am bound to say that I do not read this in the Bill. Again, you take power for these Commissioners to borrow money on the rates, a thing which is not allowed in any other Union in Ireland; and I say that to allow money to be borrowed on the security of the rates for current expenditure, is to strike at the root of Poor Law administration throughout the whole of Ireland, and the fact that you are administering the Poor Law Unions will make the matter worse. If the Government want to better the position of these Unions, they must give them railways, for it is perfectly absurd to talk of piers and harbours unless they give the people the means of carrying their fish to markets.

MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

Although I am somewhat disposed to agree that this is not a question of rent entirely, I think the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland was too much disposed to take the line that the question was not at all a question of rent. In my opinion, the landlords in the district ought to bear a certain proportion of this charge, which has to be cast upon someone or other. The right hon. Gentleman says he does not want to remove the check which the landlords have on the increase of holdings; but, looking at the district where rents have been reduced by 60 per cent and 70 per cent in, some cases, and where the landlords and agents have encouraged the increase of holdings in the past, I do not think we can look to the landlords for any great check in this way. I point out that the rent paid is not made from the land, but from the fishing industry, and from working in England in harvest-time. The present condition of things is not so much the result of a falling-off in the produce of the land; it is due primarily to the falling-off of the other industries. I think it is absolutely essential that something should be done in connection with the Unions in these congested districts. I am in favour of extending communications which will enable their produce to be brought to market, and also in favour of migration and emigration, all of which, I am afraid, are entirely out of the question under the present system of administration. I do not wish to go into that question, however, for the right hon. Gentleman seemed to have a strong objection to that point being urged this evening, no doubt because he felt how strong an argument it is in favour of Home Rule. But the question is most pressing and must be dealt with; and although I do not altogether agree with the Bill before us, I shall give it my support because it is a matter of urgency, and it is impossible to allow the insolvency of these districts to continue much longer. I believe the power of the Bill is permissive. The Government do not force any Union to accept their plan of assistance; it is only when application is made that the assistance is given. If the Government could see their way to enforce a certain rate on the landlords to meet a portion of the charge, I think it would go a good distance to meet the objection of my hon. Friend below the Gangway; but, as I have said, the matter is urgent, and we on this side of the House will be prepared to accept this as a temporary measure, and as one put forward from strong necessity.


I do not intend to touch on the relations which the principle involved in this Bill has to the Land Question; but I do not take the view of the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland that the one is so foreign to the other as to render the allusions of my hon. Friend the Member for East Mayo at all irrele- vant to the Bill. At this hour of the morning (1.35.), I do not think I should be justified in further discussing that view of the matter; but I wish to obtain some information from the right hon. Gentleman opposite on some points, and to make a few remarks on some of the details of the scheme by which the Bill proposes to release those Unions from their present position. In the first place, the Chief. Secretary will permit me to point out that the Memorandum which he has issued is not so complete as it might be. The Bill is ushered into the House as one which has its origin in the maladministration in the Unions of certain funds issued to them under an Act passed two or three years ago. But I would point out that the maladministration of those funds is only answerable for half the indebtedness. I perceive that the total expenditure under the Act was £20,000, and that Unions empowered to spend that sum, spent £35,000—that is to say, according to the Memorandum. But this is probably a misprint, because in a subsequent part of the Paper the figures used are £16,000 the Memorandum gives us rather scanty information as regards the balance of £14,000 not accounted for. It says— They owe £16,000, mainly to contractors, in respect of the excess of their expenditure over the gift of £20,000. Besides this they owe over £5,000 to the Treasury for seed rate collected but not paid over; and they have other debts, including £2,000 to Union officers, other than treasurers, which bring up their total liabilities to £30,000. Of the rates of last year, nearly £5,000 was still uncollected when the recent Commission presented the Report above referred to. That is to say, practically, that these Unions owe £16,000 in respect of money which they have maladministered, that they owe £2,000 to their officers for salaries, and that they owe £7,000 as regards which this Memorandum gives us no sort of information whatever. I presume that by reading this bulky Blue Book dealing with this matter, we should get information upon this point, and I certainly think it is a point on which the House has a right to ask for details before we proceed to the second reading of the Bill. I would ask for information with regard to that. I would ask how the Guardians were permitted to run into arrear for the seed rate to the extent of £5,000? This seed rate was originally issued in the year 1879 or 1880. The amount advanced was to be repaid by a rate leviable every year, and this sum of £5,000 must represent the arrears of a considerable number of years. Now it is material, when we are discussing the extent to which these Guardians misconducted themselves, that we should know how it was that the Local Government Board in Dublin, who are supposed to supervise the Boards of Guardians throughout the country, and who must have had before them the fact that this £5,000 was accumulating, allowed such accumulation to take place from year to year, knowing, as they must have done, that the Guardians were in this way every day rendering it more difficult for them to meet their obligations. That is an important point which I think we have a right to ask for some information upon. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary knows that there is a strict system of audit over the accounts of the Poor Law Guardians. The Local Government Board sends down its Auditor every year to audit the accounts, and it cannot have escaped the notice of this official that this large sum had accumulated and was not being paid over. I should like to know why the Local Government Board did not take steps to see that these large arrears were not suffered to accumulate, and why did they not take steps to compel the Guardians to pay over this money as they obtained it from the ratepayers? Then I want information as to this £7,000. I want to know what that represents. Who is it due to? There is a general indication that it is due partly to treasurers and partly to contractors. It is material, when we are passing an Act which seriously affects the credit of the Unions, that we should know who these creditors are and what the nature of their claim is. Does this £7,000 represent advances that were made by the Banks who acted as treasurers to the Unions? I presume that to a large extent it does, and that as regards a portion of it it represents debts due to the contractors of the Unions for actual necessaries supplied for the use of the paupers—food and other necessaries. These are points arising out of the Memorandum of the right hon. Gentleman on which I would ask for information. In addition to these, there are some points in the Bill itself upon which I should like to be informed. I should like to be told how far it is expected that the assistance of the Unions which are to be handed over to the Commissioners appointed under this Bill are expected to meet the liabilities which the Boards of Guardians have incurred; in other words, how far these unfortunate contractors who have advanced their money or goods to the Guardians are expected to suffer from the extraordinary enactments of this Bill. I think we should also have some information upon that point. The sole asset that I understand this Bill will leave in the hands of the Guardians for the purpose of paying their debts will be the value of the actual buildings and workhouse grounds. The Bill provides in the 4th section that— On the appointment of Commissioners all the property of every description of the Board of Guardians of the Union, except money in the hands of the treasurer, should, without any conveyance or assignment, be transferred to and vested in the Commissioners free from any charge, lien, or incumbrance. The provision goes on to state that the Local Government Board should cause an estimate to be made of the market value of all such property, and shall make an order declaring such value, and that the Commissioners shall, within reasonable time, to be fixed by the Local Government Board, pay over the amount of such value to the Board of Guardians. Now this is a very serious matter. What is the market value of workhouse buildings? I submit that in nine cases out of ten the market value of these buildings will be absolutely nil, because the buildings would be absolutely useless to any buyer. If these buildings were put up to auction to-morrow no one would give sixpence for them, and the real effect of this proposal will be that the Local Government Board will value these buildings at very small sums, and will hand over these sums to the Boards of Guardians. Let me point out that apart from the workhouse buildings and any furniture they may have in them—which will be a very trifling asset—let me point out that apart from the buildings and furniture of the grounds upon the buildings stand the Guardians have no assets except the rates which will not be available. What the right hon. Gentleman proposes, therefore, is that the market value of the buildings and grounds shall be ascertained and handed over. I consider that that is very unfair. I consider that what the Boards of Guardians ought to get should not be the market value of the buildings and grounds, which may be absolutely nothing, but that they should get a fair valuation fixed on the workhouse buildings estimated according to the amount they cost to build. However, that is a detail for discussion in Committee rather than on this second reading stage. Now, Sir, the first question upon which I ask information upon the Bill itself is to what extent it is expected that the creditors of these Unions will suffer by the arrangements that this Bill proposes? To my mind, if this Bill is carried out as it stands literally, it will mean that the creditors will get about sixpence in the pound That is an exceedingly unfair arrangement for unfortunate people who have advanced their money or given their goods to the workhouses. Further than this, I want information as to where the Government expect the money is to come from to pay back the loans which are to be authorized to be made by this Bill. It appears to me that the loans are to be made by the Board of Works to the Commissioners appointed under the Bill, and that the only provision for the repayment of these loans is that they are to be a second charge on the rates, the first charge being the maintenance of the paupers. The Memorandum of the right hon. Gentleman practically admits that this second charge will be almost valueless—that these Unions are in such a condition that the maintenance of the paupers will practically consume everything in the shape of rates that they can collect, and that, therefore, there will be practically nothing left for the payment of this second charge. That being so, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to what he ultimately looks for the payment of these loans? The third point upon which I would ask information is how long they propose that the extraordinary state of things to be set up by this Bill will continue to exist? The Bill itself contemplates that at some future time the old state of things will be renewed—that the authority of the Guardians will be revived, and that things will be placed exactly as they were. I want to ask what the right hon. Gentleman's estimate is, because I presume he has formed one before elaborating a scheme of this kind? What is his estimate of the period which will probably elapse before the extraordinary state of things set up by this Bill will cease, and the old machinery of the Guardians is revived? Now, Sir, so much for the details of the Bill. As regards the principle of the Bill, it seems to me to be a dishonest principle—a principle, in fact, of repudiation. These Unions are to be authorized by Parliament to repudiate their debts, and they are not to be merely authorized by Parliament to do so, but are to be assisted by Parliament to repudiate their debts. The right hon. Gentleman relies on the analogy of the Bankruptcy Law; but would he allow me to point out that there is good reason why that analogy should not hold in this case? In the case of an individual creditor whose rights are cut away from him by the Bankruptcy Law, he has advanced his money with the knowledge that the Bankruptcy Law is in existence. He has taken the risk of his debtor becoming insolvent, and, of course, having taken that risk, it is not unjust that he should have to bear whatever disadvantages the Bankruptcy Law imposes upon him. But the creditors of the Unions are not in that position. There was not in the existing law any provision for the Unions becoming bankrupt when they advanced their money and gave hundreds and thousands of pounds to these Guardians. There was no power under the law by which the Guardians could evade their liabilities. I maintain that this is ex post facto legislation of the worst character. It is legislation that seriously interferes with and strikes at the rights of creditors long after they have advanced their money, and which confers upon them no advantage in return for the very serious disadvantage it subjects them to. That is a very serious matter, and I think it justifies mo in saying that this Bill practically sets up for these Unions a policy of repudiation. I quite appreciate the force of what the right hon. Gentleman says, that the finances of the United Kingdom are in no way bound to defray the private debts of the Unions; but though that may be so, I say that this Parliament is bound not to interfere in any way to the detriment of these unfortunate creditors without giving them something in return for the rights it takes away. The right hon. Gentleman asks what machinery can be set up in place of the machinery of this Bill. I admit that that is a question not at all easy to give a satisfactory answer to; but it appears to me that a great many plans might be suggested that would be less open to objection than the plan which is now proposed. The right hon. Gentleman proposes two Commissioners to discharge all the duties of the regular Board of Guardians. What does that mean? Why, it means that they are not merely to have placed upon them the ordinary duty of administering the Poor Law, but that they are also to have placed upon them the duty of administering the various other branches of the law that Parliament has from time to time placed upon the Guardians. It means that they are to have the working of the Laborers' Act, in the remote possibility of its being put into operation in these places; it means that they are to have the making of arrangements for the Voters' Lists; that they are to have the preparation of the Jurors' Lists; and that they are to have imposed upon them the working of the sanitary system. I respectfully say that these are all matters which should have been left in the hands of the Boards of Guardians. The right hon. Gentleman says that the Boards of Guardians have been guilty of nefarious conduct; but permit me to point out that it is only the Guardians who at this moment comprise the Boards who have been found guilty; and if he wishes to inflict punishment upon these individual Guardians, let him do so, and let the Unions proceed to elect new Guardians. Such a course as that would not be one whit more extraordinary than some of the provisions of this Bill. Let him, if he likes, introduce provisions disqualifying such Guardians as have been guilty of this conduct; but I say that to hand over to the nominees of the Lord Lieutenant these extraordinary duties quite independent of the administration of the Poor Law as at present vested in the Clerk of the Union and the Guardians is a measure of a most extraordinary kind indeed. I think the right hon. Gentleman should have done the very reverse of what this Bill proposes. To propose that the Guardians should be elected year after year after this Bill comes into force, for no other purpose than to defray the debts they have incurred, seems to me an absurdity. In my opinion, he should have reversed that process. He should have placed that burden on the shoulders of the two Commissioners he provides for, and should have left to the Guardians the ordinary duty of the administration of the Poor Law. This Bill is simply a development of that policy of bankruptcy which the Government seem to think a panacea for all the troubles of the people of Ireland, whether it takes the extraordinary form of the Land Bill or the extraordinary form of this measure.

MR. RATHBONE (Carnarvonshire, Arfon)

I cannot help thinking that this is, to a very great extent, a question of rent. There is in these districts a large amount of land which cannot pay rent, but a certain amount of rent is paid, and that rent ought to be responsible before the taxpayers of this country, or of the other parts of Ireland are called upon to contribute. As the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. A. J. Balfour) pointed out, the present state of things is very largely the consequence of the utter disregard of their duties by the landlords. It is only fair that those who have produced that state of things and their creditors should be primarily responsible for the payment of the rates. The rent of one of the estates to which the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. A. J. Balfour) alluded was something like £26,000 a-year, while the real agricultural value to English or Scotch tenants is not £9,000 a-year. Many thousands beyond the rent of this estate were remitted every year through the post office on the estate, independent of the money which the tenants or members of their family carried back in their pockets from this country. The landlords of Ireland are clearly responsible for the present state of affairs. If they had prevented the multiplicity of holdings, and fulfilled their duties as guardians, &c, much of the present misery in Ireland would have been prevented.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.