HC Deb 05 December 1890 vol 349 cc678-81

That a sum, not exceeding £5,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1891, for certain Expenditure in connection with apprehended distress in Ireland.

(5.21.) SIR GEORGE TREVELYAN (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I should like to say one or two words on this question, as it is a subject to which I gave careful study a few winters ago. Yesterday the right hon. Gentleman stated that he intended to be guided by experience. In one most important matter he has been so guided. The winter of 1883–4 was the time when the question of not relaxing the ordinary operation of the Poor Law was fought out, and settled. It is true that it has once been disturbed since then; but the right hon. Gentleman has reverted to the right Course, and I hope that matter is settled for ever. There is one other point upon which I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be guided by experience. In the famine of 1846, which was a much more serious matter than the distress in 1880, when relief works on an enormous scale was started, it was proved that relief works and improvements ought to be strictly separated. The right hon. Gentleman has two classes of relief works, one consisting of railways, and against these I have nothing to say. They are, in the truest sense, relief works, and as they will promote communication they are likely to prove of permanent benefit. But I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be most careful in setting on foot works which are taken in hand for the purpose of giving wages, for the experience of 1846 and of 1880 showed that such works completely demoralised the whole population of Ireland. They had to be given up, and relief in food substituted. In the present case relief works of reclamation and afforesting are to be set on foot in order to give wages. That is a most dangerous thing to do. The result of these relief works on a great scale during the great famine was described by one who had the most intimate personal experience of what occurred from first to last, and he stated that the attraction of wages from the public purse led to the abandonment of other works, and every description of industry participated in the relief; that landlords competed with each other in getting the names of their tenants on the lists, that masters dismissed their servants, and that the clergy insisted that their parishioners should be put on the works. The consequence was that the fisheries were deserted, and one could not get shoes patched or clothing mended, because the whole of the population was out on the roads. I see no reason why the same painful effects should not follow in the case of these works, although, of course, they will not be on so extensive a scale. I think the right hon. Gentleman, however, is alive to the danger; and if he looks back to the history of those days he will find that the danger is a very real one. In 1846 it was distinctly discovered that the naval and military officers and the engineers engaged in supervising the works, although strangers to the district, were able to distinguish between those people who required employment for the purposes of relief and those who might be better employed elsewhere. I hope that the relief works, which have been chosen with such care by the right hon. Gentleman, will prove of real service to the country; but I repeat that I trust he will stop them immediately it is found that they are having a demoralising tendency and substitute for them actual relief in food.


I think the case of 1846–47 absolutely differs from the present case, because in those years the relief works were on a gigantic scale, and those now projected are to be carried out in a very different manner. A better comparison is, I think, to be obtained in the year when the right hon. Gentleman who last spoke was Chief Secretary, and himself so well-managed some small relief works in Connemara and avoided all the difficulties against which he has warned the Chief Secretary. I have but one other observation to make. I would suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should arrange the work so that the minimum shall be done in the sowing season. I may also suggest that in the case of small towns of 4,000 or 5,000 inhabitants sanitary works should be included.

(5.28.) MR. A. J. BALFOUR

Of course, I will consider the suggestions with regard to sanitary works, but I am afraid such works are not likely to give large employment to unskilled labour in proportion to their cost. It should also be borne in mind that it is the village labourer who suffers chiefly from the famine, and it may be anticipated that the starting of these railway and other works will give a stimulus to the trade of the small towns from which the labourers in those places will benefit. With regard to what has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman, I acknowledge that he has not only himself had experience of the industrial condition of the West, but he has an hereditary claim to speak on the subject of Irish distress, since the late Sir Charles Trevelyan took a most distinguished part in the relief of the great famine. I can assure him I am fully alive to the dangers incident to these relief works. I admit that it will be extremely difficult to carry out the works without a certain amount of collateral abuse, but I will try to reduce it as much as possible by the precautions I propose to take. The Government, who are undertaking these works, will have absolute control over them with respect to the time that they shall take and the expenditure upon them, and care will be taken that the works which are undertaken shall be of a complete kind and shall avoid the extravagance, jobbery, and inutility which have marked those in the past. One of the first principles I have laid down to the officers in charge of the works is, that under no circumstances are the works to be allowed to interfere with any other form of industrial occupation whatever. Care will be taken to consider the point which has been raised—namely, the requirements of cultivation at the time of sowing potatoes in the spring. A certain amount of that, I believe, could be done by the men's family, but I shall take care that work shall be given at a time when it is really requisite. I thank the right hon. Gentleman again for the general approval he has given to the scheme, and also for the suggestions he has offered to me. I assure him I shall not forget their substance or their general tenour.

(5.31.) DR. COMMINS (Roscommon, S.)

I wish to mention a work which I think could be most appropriately undertaken in pursuance of the right hon. Gentleman's relief operations. There has been for several years a great want of waterworks in the little town of Roscommon. Preparations are being made for bringing water from the Shannon, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to communicate with the authorities of Roscommon on the subject. This is a work which would give employment to people who are likely to require it, and which would probably fall in with the Chief Secretary's view with respect to relief work.

(5.32.) MR. STOREY (Sunderland)

I hope the Chief Secretary will at once accept the suggestion made by my hon. Friend (Dr. Commins). The House is in a sympathetic humour; if the right hon. Gentleman asked for a million sterling I believe he would get it. If he would only give something to each Irish Member for each constituency he would strike a deadly blow at Home Rule.

Resolution agreed to.