HC Deb 02 August 1905 vol 150 cc1347-50
MR. WHITMORE (Chelsea)

I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether, in view of the fact that the Unemployed Workmen Bill would introduce new methods for providing employment for able-bodied persons beyond the limits and conditions of the Poor Law, His Majesty's Government will consider the advisability of the appointment at an early date of a Royal Commission to inquire into the working of the Poor Law, and the results of the action of the borough councils in finding work for the unemployed in pursuance of orders and circulars from the Local Government Board, in order to ascertain how far the administration of the boards of guardiars and borough councils is efficient, and to what extent, if any, the existing powers of the Poor Law authorities are inadequate and unfitted to modern industrial needs and conditions.


My hon. friend has been courteous enough to postpone this Question once or twice for my convenience and I thank him for so doing. I have now to say, in behalf of His Majesty's Government, that, having given full consideration to the question, we are of opinion that the time has now come when full inquiry into the subjects referred to by my hon. friend ought to be undertaken. There has been no such inquiry, so far as I know, since the great inquiry in the thirties, which resulted in the passing into law of the new Poor Law Act; and we think the time has now come when a survey of the subject under new conditions, and in connection with modern requirements, ought to be undertaken. In ordinary circumstances, and on a subject like this, Governments have a reluctance to lay. themselves open to the charge that they are appointing an inquiry in order to postpone action; but in the present case, as the House knows, we are anxious that the Unemployed Bill, as modified by the Amendments of my right hon. friend the President of the Local Government Board, should be tried as an experiment for three years, and before these three years have elapsed I think we may reasonably hope that even so vast a subject may be thoroughly surveyed by the Commission which we desire to appoint.

MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

Is it the intention to appoint this Commission in the recess, and, if so, will it be possible to lay the terms of reference before the House before it separates.


I should doubt whether it would be possible, but I do not say it will not be possible. I cannot give any promise; but the general scope of the inquiry, I hope, has been made quite clear by my Answer. We are anxious to survey everything which appertains to dealing with the problem of the poor, whether poor by their own fault or by temporary lack of employment. We are also anxious to investigate what means can be taken to deal with the problems which thus arise, whether by employment by municipalities or in any other way. The subject is not a small one, and its importance will not be denied by anybody who has in his mind the all-important subject which the question of poor relief has raised in the past and is likely to raise in the future.

DR. THOMPSON (Monaghan, N.)

Will the inquiry extend to Ireland?


I should like to consider that question; by which I do not mean that Ireland is not as much interested in the conclusions of such a Commission, or in the conclusion we may arrive at after the Commission has been appointed, as any part of Great Britain, but whether it would not be necessary to appoint a separate Commission for Ireland is a question I should like to consider. So far as I remember, the Commission of 1834 did not deal with Ireland.


How will Scotland stand?


I think the same observation probably applies to Scotland. That subject also I will consider.


Will it be a Royal Commission, and will it be appointed at once?


It will be a Royal Commission. We propose to make no unnecessary delay. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, speaking as one on whose shoulders has rested the burden of appointing many Commissions, that there are few operations more difficult; and it is quite impossible, especially at this time of year, to have any security that we shall be able to bring the operation of appointing it rapidly to a conclusion.


Can the right hon. Gentleman give a, general outline of the character of this Commission? ["Oh, oh!"] I am not asking for names. It is very important. I agree as to the absolute necessity of it.


I am sure the Question is only asked for the purpose of getting information, but I think the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is impossible for us at the present moment to give an indication of the character of the Commission. If I remember rightly, the Commission of 1834 consisted of nine persons, and none of them, so far as I know, were persons greatly concerned in Party politics or connected with any class interest, and they proceeded to consider the question from what I might call the abstract and disinterested point of view. I myself have a great preference for Commissions of that sort, but I know it is very difficult to get the House to assent to their appointment.