HC Deb 01 June 1905 vol 147 cc529-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £146,954, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1906, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Local Government Board."


said he understood that his Amendment had lapsed, but having regard to the unsatisfactory nature of the reply of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board he should like to take a division upon his Amendment.


But I have called upon the hon. Member for Woolwich.

MR. WHITLEY (Halifax)

asked when an Amendment lapsed owing to the dinner hour was there any precedent for not allowing the Motion to be renewed?


The Chairman can call upon whom he pleases.


said he would renew his Motion to reduce the salary of the President of the Local Government Board by £100.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Item A be reduced by £100, in respect of the Salary of the President of the Local Government Board."— (Mr. Soares.)

MR. CROOKS (Woolwich)

said he had one or two things to mention in relation to the Vote, and first he desired to know when the Department intended to take some action in reference to the unequal administration of the Poor Law in London. When did they intend to consider recommendations made by various boards of guardians some two years ago? Boards wore allowed to pay gratuities to deserving officers, but always they had reasons from the Commissioners why they could not have assistance from the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. That fund was at the present time very unevenly administered, and it pressed very heavily upon the poorer districts of London. The administration of the fund was most unsatisfactory, for while the city of London obtained £11 11s. 2d. and Fulham £7 15s., the amounts gradually decreased until Poplar, needing most help, received only £3 5s. 2d. per head. A clause in the Local Government Act of 1888 enabled the County Council to raise a sum of money to be paid out at the rate of 4d. per head of workhouse inmates, and no revision had been made since 1888. Under that clause the City was entitled to £6,672 and got £9,840, while Poplar got £10,500 while being entitled to £22,500. If the rate were equally divided over the whole of London, Poplar would be paying 7s. instead of 12s. in the £, or 4s. 6d. per head of the population, for the maintenance of their poor. The object of this fund was to equalise the burden all over London. They had claimed a good many times that the poor of London belonged to the whole of London, and that the Metropolis should be one and not thirty parishes. It seemed to him downright robbery that in one parish of the Metropolis which was a very poor locality they should have to pay 2s. 6d. in the £ as the poor rate whilst in another rich parish the rate was only 3d. in the £. At the present time in Poplar they were paying £38,000 a year in outdoor relief, and that meant that every man, woman, and child there paid 4s. 6d. per head to maintain the poor. The Prime Minister himself had pointed out the unequal burden of the poor rate, and the President of the Local Government Board ought to make the Order so complete as would enable the poor districts to bear their burdens easier. Instead of a rate of 12s. in the £ the proper share for Poplar was about 7s. in the £, and what a difference that would make to Poplar.

The last Order issued by the Local Government Board with reference to underfed children had been a great disappointment to every one. They had thought the guardians would be carefully excluded from any interference with the underfed children, and that the education authority would have power to make a little additional grant. The whole system was cumbersome, and applied only to children living with their fathers and whose fathers were permanently impoverished. Could anybody define exactly what poverty meant? They were pleading for the children of those who were out of employment. Various associations had been started in London, such as the London School Children's Dinner Association and the "Referee" fund, and they realised that there were other children who required to be fed besides those provided for in the circular, and these associations treated them in a proper manner. With regard to the recovery of any sum that might be incurred in the feeding of children in consequence of the parents neglecting to maintain them, let them suppose that a certain number of children were attending school and the father had neglected to maintain them. They might even suppose that the mother was too lazy to get up in order to get the children their breakfast. That had been given as an instance where the children ought not to be fed. The President of the Local Government Board said in that case they ought to feed the children and then they could see to the parents afterwards. Supposing that in such a case the feeding of the children of these negligent parents went on for a week at a cost of 1s., and they then resolved to commence an action against the father. What would it mean? They would have to create a department to find out whether the man was a responsible person who could afford to pay. They would have to look up the evidence of the teacher to find out whether the children were habitually underfed. Having accumulated all this evidence they would then have to employ a solicitor to place the case before the magistrates, and they would have to call their officers and an endless number of witnesses to prove the case conclusively. Therefore to recover this 1s. they would probably have to spend 30s. in the process. He did not want such parents to escape, but why should they throw good money after bad in that way. He protested against the argument that an elaborate system of legal machinery should be set in motion at great cost to recover 1s. from a parent who did not fulfil his duty by properly feeding his child.

His suggestion was that the education authorities should be allowed to co-operate with the existing charitable agencies to fill the gap, that they should make an effort to preserve the independence of the children from the Poor Law taint, and that fathers and mothers should not be allowed to drag their children with them into the workhouses. The demoralising effect of associating the children with the Poor Law was beyond exaggeration. The guardians already had the power to subscribe to any institution that could render useful aid to the administration of the relief of the poor. How easy it would be, then, for any properly organised association to come to the guardians and ask for a subscription for the underfed children, and thus they might remove the taint of the Poor Law from the children at once. This could be done until such time as the House decided that the local authority should undertake this duty without any voluntary association at all. He might be asked what would he do with the blackguardly father and mother who refused to maintain their children? There was only one way of dealing with them, and he would send them to prison. The teachers in the schools would be able to say to them, "Here is a man in receipt of good wages" or "Here is a woman whose income is so much." If such parents habitually neglected their children and refused to pay for their food, of course the children ought to be fed in the meantime. He reminded the Committee that there was a society known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which could deal with such cases. This society had done excellent work in the past and it would do excellent work in the future. If his suggestion were carried out the teachers in such cases as he had alluded to might communicate with the guardians, who in turn might institute a prosecution against the man or woman for neglecting to maintain their children, and in that way they would get all the safeguard they wanted, and at the same time they would have secured that no underfed child would be in attendance at school. It was because he saw, from information received from all over the country, that the Local Government Board Order, issued in all good faith, meant increased officialism and increased expenditure without any advantage to the children, that he appealed to the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw the Order and adopt the suggestion he had made.

SIR JOHN GORST (Cambridge University)

said he differed from the hon. Member, to whose remarks he was sure the Committee had listened with sympathetic interest, in feeling deeply grateful to the President of the Local Government Board for the action he had taken in this matter. When Parliament met it appeared from Questions that were put that the Local Government Board had not taken into consideration the Report of the Committee on Physical Deterioration or taken any steps with regard to the children whom that Committee found were in the habit of attending school in a state of semi-starvation. The then President of the Local Government Board took the matter under his personal consideration, and doubtless the circular which the Board had issued was the best that could have been done in the circumstances of the case. It was a clumsy and, he dared say, a very imperfect method of meeting the difficulty; but it was the only method which the President of the Local Government Board could have adopted without further legislation, which in the present session was practically an impossibility. Whilst he thought there was a great deal of truth in the criticisms passed, he did not think the circular was one which could not be worked if the local education authorities and the local boards of guardians would co-operate with each other in order to carry out its provisions. The circular established this—that it was a matter for the concern of the local education authority to see that the physical condition of the children in the schools was properly attended to. That was a great gain. The local education authority had no power to spend the school rate in relieving the necessities of the children, but it was their duty to apply to the Poor Law guardians to provide the funds for relieving those children who were in a state of absolute destitution.

He agreed that all this could be extremely well done by the proper organisation of volunteer relief committees, and he read the circular as encouraging the formation of such committees, but it was essential that those volunteer committees should possess some kind of public authority. The great mistake in the administration of the Poor Law was not that voluntary assistance was not availed of, but that those who rendered voluntary assistance were not clothed with public authority. In Germany there was a system under which the municipality could call on individuals to render aid in the administration of the Poor Law. In most German cities there was a regular staff of volunteer agents who visited the poor in their homes by public authority. He believed that if a system of that kind were carried out in this country a great many of the difficulties regarding the condition of the children would disappear. It was done by the late London School Board in a great many districts. They appointed volunteer committees to visit the children in their homes and to inquire into the domestic circumstances of those who were in an unsatisfactory physical condition, and where the system was well carried out it produced the most remarkable amelioration in the condition of the children. In Seven Dials before the appointment of a committee £40 was spent every winter in an imperfect attempt to feed the children; now a sum of £5 per annum not only fed but clothed the children who required assistance. This result was brought about by visitation and urging parents to do their duty; in short, by the sort of public pressure that was brought to bear. He believed the effect of these circulars of the Board of Education and Local Government Board, if properly carried out, would be to set on foot some organisation of that sort. The experience we should gain would enable such legislation as would give additional powers to the education authority to be carried out next session, probably with the universal assent of the House.

Those who were taking up the case of children in the schools did not mean to stop at feeding, Medical aid was also of great importance, and exactly the same principles applied as to feeding. They must take care that proper medical aid was given to all the children in the schools. There was a certain conflict of authority between medical officers of health and boards of guardians, and whereas the experience of the medical officers led them to urge the poor to send for the doctor on the appearance of the first symptoms of illness, the policy of the guardians was rather to deter people from applying for medical relief. He urged that in the interests of the public health generally people should be encouraged, particularly in the case of children's complaints, to make the earliest application for medical assistance. The doctors said that phthisis could be stamped out altogether if they could only act at once upon the half-starved children, who were the seed-bed in which the disease took its rise. He hoped, therefore, the President of the Local Government Board would apply to medical relief exactly the same principles as to starving children.

DR. MACNAMARA (Camberwell, N.)

welcomed the Order which had been issued in respect to the feeding of hungry children, but expressed the fear that on three grounds it would prove in practice to be almost a dead letter. It would be a dead letter in London because, as the matter was left to the boards of guardians, the charge resulting from it would be a local and parochial charge and not a county charge, and therefore the poor parishes, with their very heavy burden of rates, were not likely to undertake it. He would ask the President of the Local Government Board whether it was not possible without any serious legislation to make any expenditure under this Order a charge on the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund. The whole of the county area would then contribute, and he was not sure that the West End would not be glad to be called upon to bear their share in such a deserving cause. Again, the Order did not deal at all with the case of any child which was not living with its father, and the cases of greatest distress were generally those where the mother was a widow or had been deserted by her husband. What was to be done about these children? They formed a substantial proportion of the whole, but they were left out completely by this Order. The third ground was that the Order left it entirely to the discretion of the guardians whether or not fathers should be disfranchised. If a father had neglected his child when he could have fed it he thought that man should be disfranchised, and treated in the most severe manner. But when it could be shown that the child was hungry through no fault of the parent, because the father was out of work, for instance, in that case he should prefer that the decision to disfranchise should not rest with a hard-mouthed guardian who was not anxious to begin operations under this Order. Under such circumstances he did not think the father ought to be disfranchised. There was only one way in which this Order might be effective, and that was that where there were voluntary agencies in existence with the necessary machinery the guardians should make a lump sum contribution to their funds from time to time. The Poor Law treatment of the case was the wrong one. There was the possibility of inflicting a grave injustice on the parent, and that was a very serious responsibility to impose. If he were a teacher he would seriously consider his position before he recommended that a child should be fed under this Order.




Because I might be inflicting injustice on the parent.


But you would inflict a graver injustice on the child.


said in that case the child should be fed at once, but it was a serious responsibility to place on the teachers. It might mean quite undeserved disfranchisement. He thought the Order had damped down a movement which was fraught with good to the children, and, frankly, while grateful for the spirit which prompted it, on the whole he should have preferred that it had not been issued, so that they might have had something better and more permanent. As it was, they would be compelled to go on until they got a complete acknowledgment on the part of the community as to its responsibility for the physical condition of the children.


said he could not quite follow the argument of the hon. Member for Woolwich, who complained on the one hand that there were so many exceptions to the Order that it might as well not have been issued, while on the other hand he contended that its operations would cause the guardians to throw good money after bad. These two contentions seemed hardly to be in harmony. The circular issued by the Local Government Board invited the guardians to co-operate as far as possible with the voluntary associations in the work of relieving underfed children, but it did not propose that they should do so by way of contribution. The Board were strongly urged to do what they could by way of administration without fresh legislation, and in response to that appeal this Order was issued. Without fresh legislation it would not be competent for the Local Government Board to empower the guardians to contribute towards such associations.


Then how are we to co-operate with them?


said cooperation without contribution was not as difficult as the hon. Member seemed to suppose. The boards of guardians would be entitled to use the associations as their agents. The associations might feed the children, and the guardians might pay the associations for the expenditure that was incurred.

MR. SYDNEY BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

A lump sum.


said that as far as he knew it might be a lump sum, but it would have to be a definite payment for the assistance given, which was a different thing from a general contribution from the guardians to such associations.

The hon. Member for Camberwell seemed to fear that the Order of the Local Government Board might prove to be a dead letter. His first reason was that the charge would be parochial charge and not a Metropolitan charge. In his opinion, it was a matter for careful consideration whether in any future legislation this charge ought to be thrown on the Metropolitan fund. That, however, could not be done without legislation. The hon. Member's second reason was that the Order did not deal with any child not living with its parent. It was impossible for the Local Government Board to deal with those cases without fresh legislation, because the Poor Law Act of 1834 did not empower them to do so. The hon. Member also complained that the Order left the guardians to determine whether a parent should be disfranchised or not. He thought the hon. Member was under a complete misconception. The Order did not alter the existing law. If the guardians provided food for a destitute child, the parent was ipso facto disfranchised, because it was held to be relief given to the parent, and he believed that would still be the case, even if the sum expended was subsequently repaid. He could not argue the legal point, but the question had been carefully considered, and that was the conclusion he had come to. The last thing the House would desire to do was that a person who could provide food for his children but neglected to do so should be relieved of the penalty of disfranchisement because the guardians recovered the money by process of law.


I agree.


concluded by saying that the Order as it stood was the utmost that the Local Government Board could do without legislation.


thought the hon. Member for Woolwich had overlooked what was really a great point in the question before the House, viz., that it was the duty of the Government to do the best it could for these children without fresh legislation.

And, it being Midnight, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.