HC Deb 22 March 1898 vol 55 cc574-86
MR. J. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

I desire to direct the attention of the Chief Secretary for Ireland to one or two matters in connection with the relief of the distressed districts of Ireland. I had a Question on the Paper to-day, but owing to the form to which it has been altered it conveyed a wrong impression to the mind of the right hon. Gentleman; I was, therefore, unable to obtain the information I desired to obtain. What I wish to direct his attention to is a report published the other day in the Manchester Guardian, on the authority of that admirable committee, the Manchester Relief of Distress Committee, to which I must say the Irish people owe a deep debt of gratitude, for they were the pioneers in this work on inaugurating private charity for the relief of those unfortunate districts. This report, to which I desire to direct his attention, stated that the Manchester Relief Committee were in possession of reports from the congested districts to the effect that amongst the children of those districts there existed widespread suffering from insufficient and unwholesome food, and from the miserable want of clothing in the cold and damp weather which prevailed. Now, what I desire to ask the right hon. Gentleman is this: I take it for granted that the report given on the authority of the Manchester Relief Committee would be considered a document entirely worthy of his consideration, and that it would be treated as an authentic and important document: and if it is true, as is asserted by the Manchester Relief Committee, that there is this horrible condition among the children in the congested districts in the west of Ireland, I put it to the right hon. Gentleman whether he does not consider it to be the duty of the Government to inquire forthwith into this statement, and, if they find that the facts are as stated, whether they will not apply to the existing state of things some more elastic and generous measure of relief than that which was described by the right hon. Gentleman in the House the other day. It will be fresh in the memory of every Member of this House that when the right hon. Gentleman was asked the other day whether it was a fact that in the case of certain relief works now being carried out the wages afforded only gave the average family of six or seven children 1½d. per day per head, he said: Yes, that is so. In many instances these wages have to be earned by women where there are no able-bodied men connected with the family, and they are obliged to travel long distances to work under the control of a timekeeper or ganger. Well, Sir, I say if this is so it is no wonder that the children should present the appearance of being half-starved, of suffering from insufficient and unwholesome food, and of being insufficiently clothed. I myself pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman, as the result of my own observations in the west of Ireland, reinforced by the statements of many priests whom I inter-viewed and consulted on this matter, that so long ago as December last it was a painful experience to observe in numbers of schools in the west of Ireland that the faces of the children were wan and pinched, and bore evident traces of insufficient food. If that is the case, anyone who knows the conditions under which these people live must know that their circumstances grow worse and worse as the spring advances, until, indeed, the month of May, June, or July; and I put it to the right hon. Gentleman whether some scheme could not be devised by which, at all events, decent food and clothing would be provided for the school children, and those unhappy children saved from suffering for want of food. The case is an extremely cruel one, because it is not only that the children have insufficient food provided, but that the food they do obtain is unwholesome food. They can survive a period of insufficient food, provided that the food be wholesome, but one of the cruellest circumstances of the present state of affairs which prevails in the west of Ireland is that even the little food which the people have is in many cases of a most sickening and unwholesome character. Men have come to me, as I have told the right hon. Gentleman, before the potatoes had given out, and told me that every day of their lives they had insufficient food, and suffered more or less pain from the unwholesome character of the food they had to live upon. What I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman to do, if he will not accept the statement of Irish Nationalist Members, is to put himself in communication with the Manchester Committee and get the information which is in their possession. They have shown their earnestness by raising a very large sum of money. I believe they have raised already £6,000 in the City of Manchester alone. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he could not put himself in communication with the Committee and get the information which is in their possession, and assist their effort by some grant of public money? At all events, I would ask them—outside the present relief machinery, which is miserably insufficient, and entirely inadequate to cope with the condition of things which exists in these districts; and would ask him to get up some more generous, more humane system of relief in the districts where the children are suffering. There is one other point in connection with this matter to which I desire to draw attention, and that is the condition of the parish of Sneem, in the County of Kerry. I was reading yesterday a most heartrending description of the condition of the parish of Sneem and Cahirciveen, both exceedingly poor districts. I cannot state it from my own personal knowledge; but all I can say is that, if that be true that terrible distress exists in Sneem and Cahirciveen, it is a most painful and distressing state of things. There is no district in Ireland in which there is greater distress, and the accounts which reach myself and other occupiers of this Bench are most appalling. What I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman is that in many parts of Ireland there would have been deaths by starvation had it not been for money which was contributed by charitable people outside of Ireland, and if they had been trusting to the Government alone there is no doubt that a terrible number of people would have died from starvation. I asked the right hon. Gentleman some time ago whether he would, so far from modifying his labour tests and his scheme of works, as the spring advanced, set people to work, even on their own farms, or in the immediate neighbourhood. I know that would be a new departure to some extent in the conduct of public works in Ireland; but, Sir, the history of relief works in Ireland is not so triumphant a success that the Government need be afraid of new experiments and new departures. I cannot see why, in view of the fact that there is in existence a system under which loans of public money are made to small farmers for executing works on their own holdings, a similar system cannot be introduced in regard to the relief works, because I am convinced that the money, if it could be used in that way, by getting people to work on their own holdings instead of sending them long distances to work, would be more beneficial and go twice as far under the present system. I would, therefore, urgently impress upon the right hon. Gentleman to imitate the experiment which has been carried out in Carraroe and other places in County Galway, whore under the direction of private relief committees the people are set to work on their own holdings, and paid for performing reasonable-works on their own holdings, the money being treated as relief money, and only given, of course, in cases where distress exists. Now that the spring is upon us, and it is necessary for the people to be on their own holdings for the purpose of sowing the crops, I would urge the right hon. Gentleman, at least in some districts, to try the experiment of carrying out labour tests on holdings of the people themselves. I take this opportunity to place these suggestions before the right hon. Gentleman. I do assure the House, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman, that all the accounts that reach me from the west of Ireland confirm my colleagues and myself in the belief that the views we placed before the House at the beginning of the Session as to the intensity of the distress were in no way exaggerated. We quite admit that the distress is not so extensive as it has been on previous occasions, but in the districts affected by the distress I believe it is greater than in 1890, when there was an expenditure of a million of money in relief, whereas the Government are now only spending £20,000; and I believe it is quite as intense, although much more limited in extent, than in 1879, and I therefore say that, as far as I can get information, there has never been in recent years a period of distress in face of which the Government have done so little to relieve the people as on the present occasion.


I should like to direct the Chief Secretary's attention to the statements made in the public Press on Saturday with reference to the failure, both of the Local Government Board and the local guardians, to extend any relief to one of the most distressed districts in the whole of the west of Ireland, and that is a portion of my own constituency. Father James Corbett, the parish priest, who has been struggling courageously and single-handed for several months to keep starvation from the doors of his parishioners, has made a very serious charge against both the Local Government Board and the local guardians. I will read to the right hon. Gentleman what he has said, and I am sure the statements will appear to him sufficiently important to warrant him in sending some inspector to the locality who is not related to anyone in the district, in order that the Chief Secretary may obtain from him a distinctly independent report with reference to the statements made by Father Corbett. These are the statements— The Local Government Board seems to have turned its back altogether on the district, since the Ballinrobe Guardians finally decided not to adopt the Government scheme of relief. Two months ago their inspector declared before the Guardians, 'Yon know, of course, there is no question of this distress. It is acute, and something must be done.' But nothing has been done. I have not heard that even an inspector has visited the districts for weeks. To make things worse, in a considerable portion of the parish the outdoor relief has been shut off, and not an extra shilling has been advanced for the last month where our committee was giving employment. Altogether, I can only describe the state of things as simply desperate. Now, I know the writer of this letter, and I am certain that he would not have made those serious statements in the public Press unless there was foundation for them, and I trust that the Chief Secretary will listen to my suggestion, and send to the district a person who is not related to anyone in the district. I do not make any charges against individuals, but I have reason to believe that the inspector who has been in the locality has not put the whole truth before the Chief Secretary. I trust the right hon. Gentleman will see to this matter as soon as he can.

MR. S. SMITH (Flintshire)

I believe the distress is more acute than is generally imagined. I certainly have for some time past heard most alarming statements as to the suffering in the west of Ireland, and I am very much afraid that a large number of people are actually dying of hunger there. The Government have failed to deal adequately with this matter and I do most heartily join in the appeal made by the hon. Gentleman below the Gangway. The Chief Secretary is a humane man, but he has failed somewhere, and meanwhile the people are dying of hunger.


The hon. Member who has just sat down has stated—I do not know on what authority—that people are dying of hunger in the west of Ireland. There was a report to that effect, but upon inquiry being made it was found to be altogether unfounded. Sir, the hon. Member for East Mayo has asked me whether I have heard or seen an account corroborating the statement made by the Manchester Relief Fund Committee. Well, Sir, I am sorry to say that I have not yet seen the report of that Committee, and it is quite possible that I did not understand the Question which the hon. Member put down. It appears to me that the hon. Member in the short speech that he made has not formed a perfectly accurate idea of the duty of the Government in cases where distress arises. We have to carefully distinguish between what is the duty of the Government in such cases and that which can be done by charitable means. The duty of the Government is to see that there is nothing in the shape of famine or starvation, and I do not think the duty of the Government extends beyond that. If we were to attempt to go beyond that, I fear it would be very difficult for us indeed to avoid expenditure of a very extravagant kind. It would be a mistake for the Government to try to do what properly belonged to the province of private charity. I rather think that the Union of which Sneem forms a part of the Kilmare Union, and if the Guardians of that Union considered that it was desirable to avail themselves of the opportunities which have been given in that Union to establish works and seek assistance from the Government, no doubt the proposals on the part of the Guardians will be favourably considered. I do not think any such representations have been received by the Local Government Board. It is for the Guardians to proceed in the matter, for it is a duty laid on them to attend to the condition of destitute persons in their own Union. If the Guardians will move in the matter, then we are perfectly ready to do all we can to assist them.


Are you aware that the Guardians have moved in the matter without success?


I do not think the Guardians have asked us to do more than we have done. If they made an application something would be done. The suggestion made by the hon. Member for East Mayo that it is part of the duty of the Government to make a grant to these funds, is altogether unprecedented. The second suggestion made by the hon. Member, I think, was that we should employ those who are now on these relief works on their own farms. To do that would be merely equivalent to paying them for doing nothing at all. I do not mind the Relief Committee and the Congested Districts Board using charitable funds being assisted, because for a small amount of money they can do a considerable amount of work, and such a scheme as that adopted by the Swinford Union might have been adopted by Her Majesty's Government, but I do not think it possible in these circumstances. Sir, the hon. Member for South Mayo has asked me to make a further inquiry into this question, and he says that the condition of affairs is very serious. Well, further inquiries shall be made, but certainly I must not be held in as any way endorsing the suggestion that the Government inspectors have failed duly to report to the Government or have been actuated by any unworthy motive.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Louth, N.)

The Board of Guardians of the Ballinrobe Union have cut off the relief there, and now arises the duty of dissolving that Board of Guardians. I have heard from the Government a statement, made by the right hon. Gentleman, drawing the distinction between the funds coming from the Government and those coming from charitable sources; but we have to meet a serious condition of poverty, and they will not raise the rates. Take, for instance, the Union of Ballinrobe. If this Board of Guardians, in order to save itself from increased rates, will not make a proper expenditure of public money, I say it is the duty of the Government to dissolve that Board of Guardians. The Local Government Board have done that before for very small offences when these Guardians are Nationalists and when they pass resolutions about very unpleasant things. But here is a question of distress, and to some extent a question of life and death. Anybody who knows this district of Ballinrobe knows that it is a most wild and barren district. Fancy the position of a priest or a parson surrounded by a clamorous and starving poor, and cut away from all sources of parish relief, and living desolate with starving people. And then the Government say that it is no part of their duty, but it is for the Guardians to decide what to do. Well, if we had a system of local government properly established, I could understand the Government taking up that line, and saying, "It is for the people to raise their own rates and expend them." But here we have the landlord practically throttling the outdoor relief in this Union. I am far from saying they have taken so brazen and ignoble a stand in Ballinrobe, but I cannot conceive my hon. Friend making a complaint, such as he has done, if he was not justified by the facts. The Government have a duty thrown upon them. Why does not the right hon. Gentleman himself, as a humane man, visit these districts? I venture to say that the Irish Members will excuse his absence from this House for such an undertaking, which is really as much a part of his duty as answering questions in this House. I am quite sure every Member would be glad to excuse his absence in order that he might personally attend these districts, and if he came back and on his own responsibility said that this distress was exaggerated, and that there was no foundation for this agitation, I fully believe the House would then accept his statement; but if he came back and said: "The statements are not exaggerated; I find these people are cut from the necessary relief," then I am sure their requirements would be immediately attended to. You made grants in this House in the case of the sugar bounties, and therefore I say that when you have remote districts cut off like this the right hon. Gentleman ought to make a personal visit and find out the condition of things for himself on the spot.


Having lived for a short space of time in the district of Sneem, and knowing the position of things, I can certainly say that if the right hon. Gentleman will accede to the appeal made by the hon. Member for North Louth he will certainly be surprised at the existing state of affairs that there is to be found there at present. I appealed last year to the right hon. Gentleman on the question of distress, and I have personally visited some portions of these districts in the County of Kerry. If the right hon. Gentleman had visited these places, which his inspectors have not visited, if he entered a house of the poorer class of people, I would certainly say that this House would be surprised at the condition of affairs that is existing at the present time in a portion of the County of Kerry. It is almost unchristian to say that a large family—and these poor people have larger families than the wealthier class of people—it is a deplorable state of things to see a man and his wife with ten or twelve children living in one apartment, male and female and husband and wife alike sleeping on the floor. If they happen to have a goat, it sleeps in the same room. It is a deplorable state of affairs that any human being in this age of Christian civilisation should be compelled to lay down on an earth floor with nothing but a bed of straw, even with the little animal which they have in their possession. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary stated that the condition of the Poor Law system, had been relaxed in order to meet the existing state of affairs, owing to the poverty in existence; but surely the right hon. Gentleman must be aware, as the President of the Local Government Board is, of the enormous increase in taxation, owing to the relief of the poor in these districts. In several portions of Ireland, in the Listowel Union, there is not so much distress existing; but he must be aware that in some portions of that Union the aggregate rate is as high as 14s. in the £; and what relief is it to say that Boards of Guardians will be permitted to give increased outdoor relief, which means nothing more nor less than an increase of taxation? Speaking as one who has lived among the people all my life, it is practically asking people on the verge of starvation—not being able to pay their own honest debts to the shopkeepers—to do an utter impossibility, and it is inconsistent with the present condition of affairs to ask the Poor Law Board, who are the only Board to deal with distress in these districts, to increase their rates. It is impossible to ask these people to go on increasing the amount of money in the way of outdoor relief, which will ultimately mean an increase in their taxation. This state of things would not be tolerated by any other civilised nation in the world. I know a case where a local landlord bought a property ten years ago at ten-and-a-half years' purchase. When he got the tenants in possession he mortgaged their rights for arrears of rent, and what was the result? On the land-tax 50 per cent. of the tenants had not received a single penny for reduction; on the contrary, besides not receiving the benefits of land legislation, the rents have been increased, in some cases by 50, and in other cases by 70 per cent. I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman how he can expect a peaceable condition of affairs under conditions like that? One of those tenants was evicted for nonpayment of rent, and because another tenant of the property had the human kindness and generosity of heart to shelter him he too was evicted. I have seen with my own eyes people living in places which the hon. Members of this House would not put the smallest animal in their possession into. I say that it is a dreadful state of affairs in a civilised country that at the present moment a tenant is evicted from his home in the first place, and is hounded from one house into another because he has sheltered a man who has been evicted from his farm.


Order, order! That has nothing to do with the Motion.


I might, of course, have explained my object in a much narrower margin, but I wanted to explain the causes that have brought about this great distress that exists in this district, and—


Order, order! The hon. Gentleman must not go into that matter.


The right hon. Gentleman mentioned what the Congested Districts Board had done. If I may be allowed, I should like to show him one case of what they have done. A local ratepayer made an application at the end of last year to get one of those animals which the Congested Districts Board have been kind enough to send into these districts—I mean a bull. They were kind enough to accede to his request, and for a two-year-old they sent him down a yearling.


Order, order!


Mr. Speaker, I will bear in mind your ruling. I wish to call the rigid hon. Gentleman's attention to another point. Is he aware that in one case the Local Government Board has refused to state the exact amount they are prepared to advance to Kerry for certain works to relieve the distress? What is certainly to my mind a sad state of affairs is to see one of the local school teachers writing to the public Press and appealing to the public all over Ireland to send down their mite—even sixpences and shillings—in order to give a small particle of food to the children of the poor peasants who come to school without breakfast, and when they go home at night it is not in the power of their parents to give them any supper, and this, too, under a, National system of education where the National school teacher has to give food to the children. I have always given the right hon. Gentleman a certain amount of credit for his kindness and good intentions, but I state candidly that this condition of things has arisen from the want of reliable and trustworthy official information he receives from the Local Government Board inspectors. I have always held that these men have no intimate knowledge, no personal acquaintance with the people in these poverty-stricken districts; and if the right hon. Gentleman will only visit these districts, and not confine himself to the aristocratic houses or the landlords' mansions, but simply go into one of these hovels where the poor live, he will find them, if not dying of starvation, on the verge of starvation. It is not so long ago that the right hon. Gentleman said that he was not aware of any case of death from starvation. Well, now, in the Killarney district not long ago a case occurred of a poor woman there who actually died from the effects of eating diseased potatoes, and she had no other food to be supplied with. In my opinion as to the great cause of distress in the County of Kerry, I most certainly say that I hold the Local Government Board directly responsible for it. It was owing to the break-up of the last harvest, which has not reached 25 per cent. of the average crop; and for that state of affairs the Local Government Board were responsible, because when the Guardians of the Listowel Union appealed through their representatives in this House for assistance it was refused. The Chief Secretary said that the Congested Districts Board was able to advance £10,000 to save the crops, but when the guardians of my Union made application for a portion of that money the Congested Districts Board said it had none. I should like to know how our guardians are placed at this moment. They will not get the money from the potato crop, and they will not be allowed to get their own money; and I say the Local Government Board is directly responsible for the failure of the crop in most cases in the south of Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman, in reply to a question which I put to him, stated that there was practically no distress in my constituency, and as a proof he pointed out that the number of inmates of the Listowel Union was less in 1897 than in 1896. But, he did not state—although he must have been aware of the fact—that the outdoor relief in that Union has since risen to a most alarming extent; and I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether if is at all consistent with the present position of affairs to ask that these unfortunate ratepayers should be mulcted in these sums in order to relieve distress in one particular district. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to visit, again, not only some portions of the country round about Cahirciveen, but also some parts of the north-west of Ireland. I think he will then admit that there is a great amount of distress, and even of starvation, prevalent at the present time.

Bill read a second time.